I have had a real love/hate relationship with libraries my entire life. Not as in love them and hate them at the same time. It’s been an either/or thing.
It started out with love. There was a library in the village where I grew up, a small, cramped little thing with warped floors and barely enough room for two people to pass each other between the rows of metal shelves. I spent a lot of time there growing up. My mother was a voracious reader, a trait I inherited from her, and we’d go to the library pretty much every week. We’d pick out books, and then she’d chat with the librarian, Mrs. Cleland, whom I flat-out adored. (I wanted to be a librarian because of her. I still remember our membership number, which would get logged on the paper check-out slip inside the cover of every book: 140. Mrs. Cleland would let me fill out my own slip, and I would try so hard to keep my childish printing between the lines.) When we got home, I’d head straight for my room to open the book’s cover and be transported to wherever its pages took me.
It being so small and us going so often, it didn’t take me long to read my way through the entire children’s section, some of it multiple times over. I remember my brothers once going to library and my mother asking them to pick up something for me while they were there. I’d read the book they chose – something about a mailman – only the previous week, which Mrs. Cleland remembered and recommended they pick something else.
So I guess it’s no surprise that when the library board ran a contest to encourage kids to read, I made it to the top tier. You got credit for each book you read – the librarian would quiz you about the story when you returned it to make sure you’d actually read it. I’d sign out books by the pile every week and inhale them. The prize? This total copyright infringement of a poster.
I drifted away from the village library once I hit high school, as it had a limited selection of young adult books, and Mrs. Cleland had retired. But I did spend a lot of time in my school library during spare classes and lunch hours. I found a little niche, an indentation where I could sit with my back up against one wall and my legs out straight in front of me, the soles of my feet touching the opposite side. There was a book spinner in front of the nook which served to mostly block me from view. All that was visible was my legs, maybe from the knees down, and I used to absolutely freak out the few people who ever noticed me tucked in there. It was my safe space, a spot that kept me sane when my world was falling apart around my ears.
It was in university that my love of libraries changed to hate. It’s not entirely fair to blame the library on its own for my change of mind. It was a particularly bad time in my home life, and I hated every second of my time at uni. I’d never wanted to go, and only did because it was expected of me. Plus the one I attended was considered a bit of a joke. With the nickname “Cartoon U,” it was rated as second-worst in the country on MacLean’s Magazine’s first ever ranking of Canadian universities, which was published while I was a student there.
As I had in the past, I turned to the library as a refuge. But this library was a horrible place. It had been built during the time when making buildings as air tight as possible was all the craze, and none of the windows opened, so it was a stale, stuffy place that made my eyes burn. (It was so bad that when the first year journalism students got to publish their edition of the campus paper one year, they chose a satirical format and the front page headline was, “Oxygen discovered in campus library!”) Rude staff, messy shelves, a general dreariness – it was everything a library isn’t supposed to be.
That library broke me. After I left university, I never set foot in another one for 24 years. I’d gone from loving libraries to hating them, and dreaded the thought of visiting one.
It wasn’t until the Halifax Central Library was built and began getting worldwide notice that my moratorium on libraries ended. After reading an article in which it was ranked one of the top ten in the world, one day when Ron and I were downtown, I suggested we check it out. He was pleasantly surprised. In all our travels, he’d suggest visiting old libraries along the way because he knows how much I love books. But I’d always say no, and I think it frustrated him a bit, that I was missing out on something I would probably love because of a bad experience such a long time ago.
The Halifax Central Library turned out to be fantastic. It’s bright and airy, with reading areas, quiet rooms, multimedia rooms, cafes, and even a rooftop garden that looks out over the city. The architecture has a Hogwarts feel to it, and there’s a visible book return system where you can watch books journey along a a conveyor belt when they’re shoved through the returns slot.
It also probably didn’t hurt that we just happened to be there on Star Wars Day, complete with cosplayers.
Enjoying the Halifax Central Library encouraged me to give another one a try, so when Ron and I were planning a trip to Dublin, I booked tickets to visit The Long Room in Trinity College. And it was there that I finally came full circle.
The Long Room is my dream library. Everything about it is rich – the design, the wood, the decor. It smells right, the sound of footsteps on the wooden floor soothing, and I could easily imagine myself finding my own little nook somewhere. And while as a tourist you can’t touch the books, it was enough to just be near them, dreaming about where they might take me were I ever able to leaf through their pages.
I was, quite simply, in love again.
I hope that would make Mrs. Cleland smile.
This is wonderful! A beautifully told journey.
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