I joined my local public library today. My wife had gone shopping and told me to "go to the bookstore" (code for "and stay out my way"), but on the way to the nearest Barnes & Noble I passed the Bee Cave library. I've passed it umpteen times before, but I slowed down this time, peered in, and decided to go find out what was going on.
It's a small library, and a stand alone one at that. "You'll borrow from here and you'll return to here", the stern lady behind the counter warned me as she handed me the application form. The tacet "or else" was clear. So although they do have access to an Inter Library Loan facility, I decided to take my new library card on a quick tour of the contents. The books around me were, it seemed, pretty much what I'd have to play with. But the tour quickly morphed into a stroll down a personal library memory lane. I realized that other than the fact that almost 100% of the history books were on American history, I might as well have been paying my first visit, 42 years ago, to my very first public library in Johnston Castle, Scotland.
Johnston Castle was -- still is in part -- a small government housing area in Scotland, just east of Paisley (of "pattern" fame). I lived there, Pine Crescent, from just after I was born until I was nine. It was in the Community Center, just across from my house, that my first library lived. Mrs Ballantyne was the head librarian. She was 65. Actually, she was nearer 25, but at my tender age of 5 there were only three age groups: "same age as me"; "grown up", by which I meant 12; and "old", which was synonymous with 65 but covered everyone from my 25-ish parents and up. Mrs Ballantyne was old. But she was also jolly. Later on I'd attend her "story time" classes at the library, but what I most remember was her smiling and being excited about books. Suited me, because I was delirious about them.
I think I'd been dying to get into the library for ages. My friends and I used to play hide and seek and "kick the can" around the bushes and doorways of the Community Centre, and sometimes we'd peer in through the tall thin windows on the 1960's style building and see the book-filled interior. But I reckon there must have been a minimum age of 5 for membership, so I had to wait. The day it happened, my mum took me across the street, in through the Center doors, turning left and into the library itself. I don't remember much of the joining itself; all I remember is making a beeline to the children's books and noticing it was right next to one of the windows we'd previously peered through. I specifically remember it because at the base of the outside of the window was growing the spiny, yellow flowered version of what was probably a type of contoneaster. It was the perfect kind for catching bees in jam jars, which was another pastime of ours, as we waited to come of age for the library.
I was drooling at the books. I've always been glad, then and now, that modern books come in all shapes and sizes and colours. Yes, sure, there's something impressive about grand libraries with those wheeled ladders that whiz across shelves filled with leather-bound books all alike, all grey or brown or green. But better still is the swirly kalaidescope of colour you get from real books.
Despite the swirl, I think I picked my first book quickly. It was Tommy Gets A Medal, by Dora Thatcher. It was about a tugboat called Tommy. Who got a medal. (Hey, it was a long time ago!) That said, I took a mental note that one day, "when I was grown up", I was going to borrow a huge tome, with scarily lifelike picture on the front of an Alice-In-Wonderland-style queen attacking a pawn, called Chess For Children. Huge tomes have always impressed me. Later, in Mrs McCreadie's Primary 3 class I would hum and haver for weeks before having the courage to take home the simply hyoooooj hardback copy of The Mountain Of Adventure, by Enid Blyton. Ah Enid Blyton. Don't dare say a bad thing about her. On my list of all time favourite books, The Enchanted Wood is up there, along with Five Go Off In A Caravan and another of the Philip/Dinah/Jack/Lucy-Anne series, The Valley of Adventure.
But anyway, where was I? Oh right: back in Johnstone Castle Library, Mum and I departed with my newly borrowed book and that's pretty much all I remember. However, a postscript to the main story was provided by my mum years later. Apparently an hour after we'd returned home, I appeared at the kitchen door and anounced that we had to go back because I'd finished the book. She wouldn't believe me at first and proceeded to quiz me on the contents. It seems I passed the impromptu exam with flying colours and we returned to get some more books. So began my relationship with words on paper. It wasn't the last time my rapid reading was to threaten to screw up the card-based borrowing system at Johnstone by having me try to return books before their cards had moved from the "just borrowed" drawer to the "ready to be returned" drawer. A year or two later, during an early morning visit I'd borrowed three books on rocks, minerals and fossils. By lunchtime I realized I was going to find neither amethyst nor trilobites in my back garden,and so I announced to my Grandma, who was visiting while mum was out, that I had to go back to the library to change the books. Grandma insisted that they wouldn't allow it and no amount of complaining "But Grandma, I know Missus Ballantyne!" would convince her to let me go and change them.
At 9, my family and I moved up in the world and hopped from Johnstone Castle all the way to Spateston, a brand spanking new government scheme about two miles from "The Castle". Like Johnstone, Spateston had its Community Center, complete with library, but the latter was a good five minute walk from my new house. We were, as I said, moving up in the world.
My main memory of Spateston library was trying to get into the "adult" section. Now it's true I was a growing healthy male, but I was still only nine for heaven's sake. So when I say "adult" I mean only the main part of the library. I was getting fed up with Enid Blyton -- well, no, hang on; not fed up so much as looking for additional material -- and I'd long since lost interest in Tommy The Tugboat or The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Aside: one kids' book I do remember was an obscure but modern fairy tale from, it turns out, The Netherlands: The Seven Times Search. Weird book, but a nice story. If you've read it, you'll know what I mean. But no, I was now too grown up for such things. Instead, I lusted after two particular sections in the main library. One I remember primarily by its Dewey Decimal classification; section 745. Strictly that is "Decorative Arts" but the local librarians stuffed anything in there to do with "making stuff". They also managed to chuck in there books on home-grown scientific experiments. Although I wasn't allowed to borrow from the adult section, when the librarians were distracted I used to sneak in and pore over two books in particular. One contained instructions for constructing your own cloud chamber with which to observe radiation trails from the radium paint in watch dials. Little did I know that modern luminous watches didn't use radium and in fact weren't really luminous any more. The other 745 book explained how to build a computer. This was the early 70's mind, so there was nine-year-old me in Johnstone, Scotland, perhaps one of the earliest participants in "Slightly Raised Temperature In The Glen", the Celtic version of the larger "Fire In The Valley" getting off the ground over in California.
The other adult book section I was targetting was one that two of my friends, Barry Conway and John Houston were also after: conjuring. While the kids sections had a few books on card tricks, and the odd piece of close-up magic, we'd all three devoured them all. In our quests to beat the other two, and come up with tricks the others hadn't seen, we all had our eyes on the treasures of the main conjuring section. Unfortunately it, unlike section 745, was in plain view of the librarians' work area, so you had to be smart to get a look. A specific book I remember was Joseph Dunninger's Complete Encyclopedia of Magic. It wasn't really an instructional book, but it had such a look of being a long-lost secret that I reckoned it held the key to dominance among the three of us. Try as we might, the most any of us could manage was an extended look at the book while in the library. Realizing that we were unlikely to get into the main section for real, Barry tried a different tack. He told me he'd had an exception made and had been allowed to join the main section early. I think by now we were about 11, and the age for joining the main section was 12. So I marched up to the librarian, indignant, and demanded to be let in "just like my friend Barry". Of course Barry had been fibbing and I was told in no uncertain terms by the librarian that it was "Against The Law!" to be allowed in before we reached 12. From then on, even our furtive visits were more difficult since she kept a more careful eye on us.
Within a year or so, adult section became just "the library", and I could read what I wanted. I read every 745.xxx book, and every conjuring book. Geology fell next; and then military history and miniature wargaming. Yay Don Featherstone! Before long the vast expanses of the main library seemed small again. But then came Paisley.
In high school (7th through 12th grade in US terms) I played Double Bass. (I wanted to play clarinet, but they didn't have enough spaces, so they gave me the nearest thing they could find...). Every Saturday morning I'd get the bus into the nearby metropolis of Paisley, where I'd have a Double Bass lesson. Often I'd bus back, but occasionally I'd walk. The distance from Paisley Grammar School where my lesson was, to home, was only 5.5 miles. On one such walk I popped in to look at fossils at Paisley Museum. I'd been there a few times and had even sbmitted for identification a fossil I'd found near Swanage. I'd actually passed it by my high school history teacher first, thinking that he'd be the nearest I could get to a paleontologist. When he told me he thought it might be a bit of a bird's wing I knew I'd asked the wrong guy. It was a section of ammonite ... but I digress. Anyway, exiting from the museum I noticed that there was a library next door. In fact I already knew it was there, but I guess I'd always thought it was a private thing -- not like my libraries back in Johnstone Castle or Spateston. For whatever reason, I decided this time I'd have a look. Pushing through the heavy outer doors, I think I had to turn to the left and open an inner door. Turn again to the right and: Oh, My, Go'.
My eyes opened wide, my head and upper jaw lifted towards the ceiling, and my lower jaw remained parallel to the floor to which it may as well have been stapled. To the small-town boy from small-town libraries, it was quite literally jaw-dropping. I had never seen so many books in one place. Books upon books, to the left, ahead of me, and to my right. Then I realized that the books on my right were the kids section, but a kids section bigger than the entire library in Spateston. Books above me too -- there was an entire balcony of books, running along three walls of the entire cave-like space. I don't know how many double-takes I double took or how long I stood gaping.
I stumbled forward, part in a daze, part with a grin on my face, and stopped at the vast central desk area where what I assumed must be an elite class of ueber librarians milled about, Gringots-goblin-like in their serious, book-ish diligence. I don't remember much about the joining itself, but that library became a regular haunt for me after that. I borrowed books on learning Russian ("вот дом" anyone?), on anything to do with escaping from German POW camps in WW2, on cryptography, and on science and science and science.
Post high school, libraries became less of a source of wonder, and more just part of daily life. Experiencing the eight-floor main library at Glasgow University would have been truly sublime had I encountered it as a young boy from Johnstone Castle. But by the time I arrived at the Uni, Paisley had prepared me for it and while it was cool -- even in the micro-fiche days before computerization -- it was just a bigger version of what I'd become used to.
Post university, apart from a brief fling with libraries in and around Glasgow, my relationship with these public book repositories diminished rapidly. The novelty in Glasgow was you could borrow from any library in the system and return to any. It was nice to begin with because it made even the Paisley library seem small. But it soon wore off. Or rather, it was overshadowed by my increasing ability to own books. And it wasn't just ability; my desire to own the books must have increased. Even today, I find the single biggest obstacle to buying for and reading on my Kindle is DRM. Something in me, probably irrational I admit, objects to paying for a right to read that is forever subject to the existence of a decryption capability that is controlled by someone else. In the past, the hardest problem we had to face in reading stuff was finding the Rosetta stone. I pity the poor future archeologist who stumbles upon Triple-DES encrypted books.
And it's maybe that -- noticing and finding myself increasingly uneasy with the change in my self from being someone who was happy to live in a world of shared books to someone who wanted them to be "mine, all mine ah tell ye!" -- that led me to pop into Bee Cave library today, and to fill out the stern lady's form. It's probably part of a deeper set of changes that only become available on reaching and moving beyond this, the mid-point of life. The cool thing about this curious halfway house is that there's enough life already lived to let one pick out patterns, know strengths, make peace with weakness; but also enough remaining ahead, Insha'Allah, to let the past inform the future.