Thursday, June 14, 2001

A Trip to the Library

As a small child growing up in Nashville, my life was dull in many regards - my sisters and I didn't get to watch much TV, rarely went to movies, and lived a very quiet life. Going to our branch library in Green Hills was a weekly necessity; my sisters and I always checked out the maximum number of books allowed and usually had read them all in the first 48 hours. The Green Hills branch was, after our home, one of our more constant and comforting environments.
But the Ben West Library - the Main branch - that was our Disneyland; a treat for enduring a visit to the doctor, or finishing school for the summer. It had those Tichenor puppets that we saw on school field trips, and more books than Green Hills - books we couldn't find elsewhere. It had the thrill of novelty, and for fanatical readers like me and my older sister Amy, it was nirvana. Among the three of us girls (Greta wasn't an enthusiastic reader and would allot us her share), we could get 24 books, and we planned and contrived how to get the most out of that unreasonable (to us!) limitation: "I'll get The Secret Garden and you can read it when I'm done, if you'll let me read Anne of the Island when you're finished..."
25 years later, I am still going to the Main library, but more frequently than back in those days. In high school and college I researched countless papers there, I moved into the Adult Fiction area, and in recent years I have haunted the audio-visual department for books on tape for long commutes. I was delighted that it was moving into a bigger space. The last 2 months have been hard - waiting for the building to open, yet unwilling to approach the slowly emptying husk of the old building that had been my Disneyland.
I could not wait for the official opening ceremonies on Saturday - I left work early on Friday to see if I could sneak through in advance. Fortunately for me, the doors were open and I was able to walk in. All along, I had not envisioned what the space would look like, even though I had seen architectural sketches on display. I figured it would be a dull, functional civic space with linoleum floors.
I walked into the main lobby on white marble. I was in Heaven's Library. Three immense stories of books and materials and conference rooms and stages and computers and galleries. It was as though someone had asked me, "What would you like in your library?" and every single suggestion offered was met with a hearty "We'll do it!" My mouth stayed agape for most of my reconnaissance through the building. Nice things like this, where you're genuinely surprised and delighted, are so rare in this world that they should be commemorated with plaques.
I went into the Popular Materials section, and did my first acid test. In over 2 decades of visiting Metro libraries, I have noticed how many beloved but out-of-print books have slowly disappeared from the shelves, like old dogs sent to "live on a farm;" or stolen by highly literate thieves. I have gotten in the habit, in bookstores and libraries alike, of checking to see if these books still live on shelves somewhere. So I started checking... H.E. Bates? Check. Brent? Check. Bristow? Check. Alcott - the obscure works? Check. They were all there. It was painful to leave them on the shelves, but I could tell that the checkout stations weren't open.
I should mention that there were other people walking through like me, but many had tags on, and I instinctively knew I wasn't supposed to be there... which made wandering through the stacks even sweeter. I saw the immense children's section, with almost a half-dozen copies of each book on the shelves in some areas. Blyton? Check. I was finally captured on the third floor, looking out into the lovely courtyard. A very nice young man named Dallas politely informed me that the library wasn't open to the public yet, but offered to walk me through a few areas I hadn't seen yet on my way out.
The Grand Reading Room (magnificent - look at the ceiling!). The Nashville Room (spacious, after that tiny room in the old building). The Theater (even the stage lighting was hung!). The Art Gallery (an exhibit already in place)... and I was out in the street again. In a world where we usually expect so little, and usually get it, the new Main Library is a delight, exceeding my expectations in every respect. The media is fond of asking the question "Is the Internet making libraries obsolete?" to which this building, and the vision behind it, shout a resounding and defiant "NO!"
I'm going back on Monday during my lunch break. Let's see... Malvern? Streatfeild?