by BJ Ward
One might hear this week how we celebrate libraries because they house national treasures—e.g., knowledge, history, creativity, and equal accessibility.
But I celebrate libraries for very personal reasons. I grew up in northwestern New Jersey, surrounded by the patchwork earth of farmland that grew sweet corn and isolation. Boredom was my county’s most plentiful crop. During the internet-less, video-game-less, and seemingly endless summers of my childhood, I could ride my bike to the Washington Borough Public Library and within one minute be transported to the world of Dr. Doolittle; The Hardy Boys; and Babe Ruth, All-American Hero. Each book was a planet with a spine. The librarian was an organizing star, keeping all those spheres in their places for future explorers to discover. The library itself was a universe—a macrocosm between paint-chipped walls, below a roof paid for by bake sales, sandwiched between a tattoo parlor and halfway house. It was the most fecund place I knew—a greenhouse for my imagination, where fluorescence had to do with my mind’s branches spreading. O the joyful fire in the astronaut’s skull when divagation led to apprehension.
It didn’t matter that my family was blue-collar broke—the children encouraged to wear the same clothes for three days to save money at the washeteria. The television’s picture tube was two years busted, dispatching images only in purples and greens to our family. It was a poor man’s Mardi Gras year-round. However, it was a parade that I tired of. On the last day of fourth grade, my teacher—Mrs. Penner—handed us temporary library cards to be used during the summer. Little did she or I know what she did, but it was akin to handing me the Golden Ticket at Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.
By mid-July I had grown terribly bored of watching a purple Ricky get frustrated again with a green Lucy for yet another perfectly avoidable near-disaster. I found Mrs. Penner’s gift, hopped on my normal-colored bike and made my way to town, miles away. My dirty clothes didn’t seem to matter to the librarian when I walked in and showed her my card. She smiled and said, “Welcome,” then turned her back as if she trusted me completely, as if I owned the bookish joint. As I roamed the musty yet clean aisles, I was amazed that this pleasure was free—unless you enjoyed it too long at home. Then you had to pay a 5¢ late fee. No guard followed me around the stacks, taking note of which books I touched, as I placed my finger on immensity after immensity, my nine-year-old brain awash in curiosity.
The card catalogue was astounding—all that knowledge and creativity ordered so as to be found—which is to say, ordered so as to invite me in. I was a kid from the outskirts of dirty, little, humble Washington—sleepy, vexed, bankrupt Washington with its roads made of pot-holed concrete slabs—stubborn and resilient Washington, noted for a declining can factory & a defunct pipe organ maker. Every weekday throughout that summer I returned, locked my bike to a tree struggling to grow from a dirt plot in the sidewalk and slid off the town’s cigarette-butt streets into the shady arbors of bookcases, rubbing elbows with the same authors kids in Princeton were familiar with—kids in Princeton, who also lived a bit off Route 31—but they were near the state capital, Trenton, where 31 ended and all the decisions got made. I was near the other terminus of 31, near Buttzville, home of Hot Dog Johnny’s, where the only decisions relevant to my family’s life was Mustard or Ketchup? on a tube steak.
If I were physically sick, it would have been clear to an observer why I entered a pharmacy day after day. But the library was a different kind of house of cures. Its books were no less officinal to the boredom that affected me than penicillin would have been to an infection. And words weren’t the only thing well-stocked there. Hospitality was part of the experience. The democratic library received me as if I were a brain surgeon. It let me fill the quiet room of my head with the noise of the world’s various, galled, happy, mournful, inquisitive, rhapsodic, splenetic, and sometimes nothing-but-silly voices—until I found my own and shouted out to the world how the human condition occurs in little, dirty, beautiful, unapologetic Washington, New Jersey. The library was a shining, egalitarian, constantly expanding star-cluster where one could find himself as he got lost. To get there, I had to navigate around fences, through claptrap, slog through the indifference the world tried to (and still tries to) teach me, keeping intact both my imagination and compassion. Although I didn’t know it then, they were the two qualities on which all my future happiness would be predicated, and the Washington Public Library was where, instead of being accosted, they were acknowledged, somehow acquitted, and accreted. Thank you to all the librarians who keep the doors open to those who need the library. And thank you, Mrs. Penner.
BJ Ward’s (left) most recent book is Gravedigger’s Birthday (North Atlantic Books), a collection of poetry. His work has been featured on National Public Radio’s “The Writer’s Almanac” and the web site, Poetry Daily, as well as in publications such as Poetry, TriQuarterly, and the Pushcart Prize Anthology. He is an Assistant Professor of English at Warren County Community College in New Jersey.