From about age five until I graduated from high school, the public library had a magnetism I could not avoid. I got a library card as soon as I could print my name – my signature is childish, loopy, uneven letters printed in black Sharpie. The library was brick, surrounded by bulbous conifer bushes. Just across the street from McDonald’s and a travel agency, the roof was covered in pointy pyramid-like shapes. It looked like a strange boxy silhouette of the Rocky Mountains.
The library was in the heart of Maple Grove – which meant my family and I drove past it numerous times in a week, on the way to piano lessons or Cub Foods or the bank.
Inside, the glass doors of the lobby were gigantic. Closing behind me, the doors shut out the street noise and enveloped me in a strange, still silence. There was a framed picture of Strega Nona, signed by Tomie diPaola in lacy cursive, with a heart. There was an aquarium gurgling next to the CDs (I entered a name in the “Name the Fish Contest,” but I can’t remember what I suggested).
And there were shelves, and shelves, and shelves of books with blue library stickers and barcodes.
The bathrooms were never clean – gray, grimy tile, a baby changing that was always left open, toilet paper all over the floor. The librarians wore turtlenecks and glasses and stern faces.
It was imperfect – a microcosm of the world’s gritty, somber reality.
And I adored it.
A shy, quiet child, the library and I were kindred spirits. I could disappear into its shelves and no one would wonder where I went. I could hide in a corner, take my time, move slowly, tiptoe. This was how the library wanted to be treated. I could pull out a book, put it back, pull it out again. I could search for hours and only find three things. I could check out a stack of twenty-seven. No judgment.
The library accepted my indecision, my curiosity with a silent welcome.
At the library I bulldozed the children’s section, the scant teen selection, and the puppets. I remember the day I stood hesitantly at the end of Adult Fiction – did I dare? The shelves were as tall as the sky. No one was there to stop me.
I read everything I could reach, often finishing a book in the car on the way home. I lost books, dropped them in the bathtub. I lost my library card. A voice would come over the loudspeaker – “Would Brooke E McDonald please come to the counter?” I signed up to win books, I wrote short stories for the annual contest. In high school I took my heavy calculus book and studied in the quiet room, a foreign world of adults with laptops and serious-looking Asians doing physics.
The library fostered my love for reading and learning, but the best gift it gave me was the gift of place. The library, for so many years, was my place. It was safe, a haven, a certainty. My times there were not only peaceful, they nourished my soul.
The week I turned 16 and got my driver’s license, I took my first solo trip to the library. (I might have also driven through McDonald’s to get french fries.) The library was, I’m almost entirely sure, the first place I went as a legal driver. The parking lot was cramped and I almost hit someone backing out of my spot. But the enormity of the moment was enough to almost bring me to tears.
I loved the Maple Grove library like I loved my own mother, almost. It saw me grow up, it stayed constant while I changed. It never got newer or shinier, it never got younger – but it was mine, and it was always there.
But then, it was not.
My freshman year of college, the city finished construction on a new library about half a mile down the road. It was an environmentally-friendly building, all windows, prairie grasses growing in the lawn. There was a parking garage. There were funky orange sitting areas and high ceilings.
When I came home from college that summer, the city had closed my library. The new one hosted a grand opening. It was beautiful. The community loved it.
I felt like I’d lost a lung.
My childhood contained so many stacks of books from the library, so many crumpled receipts circled so I wouldn’t forget to take them back. My parents read to me from them, and then I read them to myself. Those books shaped my view of life through the characters I met and the hours I spent enlarging my vocabulary. The act of bringing home books on loan, knowing they weren’t mine to keep, kept me honest, kept me careful. I met God in those books, and I met friends I would never really meet. I met beauty, and truth, and heartbreak, and compassion, sometimes for the first time. I met love. I met mystery, joy, pain.
The library was a vital part of my childhood, and the books she gave me changed me, taught me how to live – not as a substitute to really living life, but as a path leading right up to it.
I am a better person because of it.