Tiny Free Libraries are Cabinets of Wonder

I love libraries. I love the side-by-sideness of the books. I love the shelves lined in obedient rows, ordered by deceptively simple yet gloriously arcane rules of Dewey and LC. The mystical arts of description and classification for which there are endless logic trees branching out in every direction, a craft worthy of master wizards and other magical types. I love, too, the absolute heaping bounties of books arranged on carts and end-caps by the pixie whim of whoever happens to be building the day’s thematic display. Placed, with great care, to appear haphazard. Nothing is haphazard in a library. Everything has a logic. The game is finding that logic out.

This goes with that. And, no matter what they try to tell you, so much judgment of books by their covers. Every book deserves to shelved face out so it can present the face of its beautiful self, the dust jacket.

Libraries have been my world since I was 15 years old. Twenty years as an academic librarian with another ten years working in a public library before that. You might even consider the 6 weeks I worked as a retail bookstore manager, but I don’t like to think about that. Those six weeks were the Dark Times. I’m not a book seller. I’m a book lender. Which is to say, I’m a book giver because we all know that one must always lend books with the expectation of never getting them back again.

It is a strange feeling to no longer be working in libraries, after so much time. I was welll-prepared for the change, wondering what it might feel like to no longer think of myself as a librarian and yet, still to be a library person. Unfortunately, pandemic timing has kept me out of libraries since I left my office in mid-March 2020, almost 10 months ago. I haven’t stepped foot inside a library for 10 months. No longer being a librarian was my plan. No longer spending time in libraries was never supposed to happen.

So, it was my great surprise and relief to discover a tiny, free library in my neighborhood. A well-made, glass-fronted cabinet mounted roadside and full of free books. It sits curbside three or four blocks from my house. I’d seen it in passing several times but had never taken time to consider its wonders until during a run two week ago. I’ve been reading my way through Margaret Atwood and was getting ready to order a copy of The Blind Assassin online. Having books delivered by mail is a nice service but it seems a sad way to receive books. I prefer to find them on their selves, free them from their rest and bring them home into fellowship with my life and my books.

Jogging past the entrance to the road where the tiny, free library sat, I thought “wouldn’t it be cool if I found the Margaret Atwood books I need right there?” I jogged on for a bit but couldn’t shake the idea and circled back to peer inside. Waiting, of course, on the middle shelf at face level was a perfectly nice paperback copy of The Blind Assassin. Exactly the book I needed. It was magical. I had discovered a cabinet of wonders.

I thought about taking the book and continuing my run but that didn’t seem sporting. The principle of the free library is give one, take one. So, I asked fate to hold tight just a little longer, long enough for me to finish my run, grab a few books from my own read pile, get into the car with my wife and make the drive back. Fate held. The Blind Assassin was waiting for me along with two books by two other authors I enjoy: Bill Bryson and Celeste Ng.

And so, an obsession was born. My wife and I drove around town, noting all the other tiny, free libraries scattered about like spiritual life lines, emergency phone booths, totems to shared culture in a time when we cannot share space.

There are quite a few of these in town, maybe a dozen. I’ve already learned which few are my favorite. I will be making a map so I can make a regular route, checkin in on what my neighbors have been reading and share some books from my own collection. It is a kind of conversation, a communion of sorts, this impromptu, anonymous book-taking and book-leaving.

It has been a little bit of magic in a very unmagical year. I am most grateful and most happy to join the community. These friends I do not know have given me something rather special. They have given me back my library.

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