I spent part of my day yesterday working in the public library in the next town over. I do this every once in a while when I need to get out of my office at home and I don’t feel like overspending for over-roasted coffee at the local coffee house. The library is a good one, with a strong collection and plenty of welcoming places to sit and work. But something about spending my working day in a public library always unsettles me. At midday the crowd in the library consists almost entirely of women, small children and the elderly folks who prowl the periodical shelves. It’s like being the only able-bodied male left in a town where all the other men have gone off to war. You feel as if you have to explain yourself, account for your presence there.
A little while back, Michael Gorra wrote this tribute to the New England town library in the excellent online journal The Smart Set. I’m late in linking to it, but it’s still worth a read. Gorra is mostly interested in small-town libraries as relics of a Yankee past, and touches only briefly on the actual utility of these places for their patrons. I wonder what he would make of our library, with its multimedia “teen zone,” its sprawling DVD collection, its rows and rows of computer work stations. It’s amazing and it’s free and Gorra is right when he describes town libraries as remarkably “open and generous places.” But that doesn’t mean I can make myself feel like I belong there.