As many people who read this blog are aware, I am quite the lover of books. And while I would like to think that I sprang from the womb with a book in my hand, the fact is I did not discover the joys of reading until the summer between 3rd and 4th grade.
It was during that summer, I was attending summer school and one of the field trips we took was to the library, where I was given the most wondrous thing… a library card. The world changed in the blink of an eye. It was then that I discovered reading. Before that day I had two books that I was bored to tears with, “Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing” by Judy Blume and a book of Mother Goose Rhymes.
It started slowly. I checked out 4 or 5 books. Finished them in a few days so Dad patiently got up early to take me and my siblings to the library so I could get some more. Checked out 5-6 books and read them in four days, so Dad said get more books so we didn’t have to keep going. I checked out 10 books and read them in five days. Dad was beginning to lose his patience with me. I am sure, that summer, my poor Dad was sick of hearing me say, “Daddy, I finished my books… Can we go to the library?”
It didn’t stop there. There was a summer reading program and while most of the librarians believed me and gave me all the bookmarks and little doodads that were prizes for reading a given number of books, one librarian, whom I shall call “Heloise” to protect the not-so-nice, never believed me and would spend at least ten minutes quizzing me on what I had read, to no avail. Every time, I told her exactly what the book was about and gnashing her canine-like teeth, she would list my books in my folder. At the end of that summer, I was awash in doodads and bookmarks and stickers and more importantly, I had gone from an ignorant little non-reader to a voracious consumer of the written word.
Many happy memories came into existence at that library. Memories I have with my brother and sister, with my Dad, with my friends. One summer I read every book in the children’s section that was not a baby book and at the age of 12, I was allowed to venture into the adult section. Through the summer book clubs, I amassed books, tee-shirts, toys, bookmarks, candy and a formidable reputation. I grew from a child, to be an adolescent and finally to young womanhood with that library and my passion for books.
In 1996, we moved to a larger community. Here I was a small fish in a big ocean. They didn’t know me there and one day the unfathomable happened. I checked out two audio items. I recall them as being CDS but they may have been cassettes. But whatever they were, they were damaged and I discovered this the moment I got the items into my car. I went back into the library, and like the responsible library patron I had been trained to be, returned the items making sure to tell the librarian on duty that the items were just checked out and I found them to be damaged. She assured me that they would be returned and I would not be charged for the damage. Oh if only I had known then, what I do now.
A week later, I received notification that I was the one who damaged the items and they wanted me to pay $50 to replace the tapes. Then a month later I received a notice that I had not returned said items. This caused me great anger and after a brief discussion with the staff, I resolved to dispute the outrageous idea that I had done this.
Suffice it to say, the matter did not end there. A peaceful calm settled over the feud between me and the library. I had access to the libraries of the colleges I attended and I worked at a bookstore. I found myself increasingly hating the library for tarnishing my good name. “I don’t need their dirty public books,” I’d tell myself sourly, as dollar after hard earned dollar was spent not only on good books worthy of being safe in my library, but also subpar ones that I never would have purchased if I had read them first.
Approximately five years ago, I went back to the library that cast such aspersions on my good name and tried to get a library card, thinking that perhaps enough time had passed – only to have my hopes dashed by a little white-haired, bespectacled vulture who, once discovering my identity, shredded my application into tiny pieces before throwing it into the trash before my horrified eyes. As I walked away from the counter in stunned silence and shamed, I felt tears stinging in my eyes and every person waiting to check books out behind me seemed to whisper and point – “There goes Farheen, a horrible library patron…”
Even worse, I found that even if I moved to a different community, I was shunned because of the black spot on my record. Elmhurst, Wood Dale, Itasca – all denied me, taking the word of that one library that caused me so much pain and grief.
This standoff would have continued on for eternity perhaps if it were not for one event. I lost something more important than my library privileges. I lost something irreplaceable which I will mourn as long as I draw breath. I needed comfort desperately. Comfort that only the library could give me, for within a library, with its book-lined shelves and quiet that is unique to a place of learning, there is safety and escape.
With encouragement from my sister as well as others, I decided to go to the library, swallowing my pride and principles, and with my wallet in my hands to settle the matter forever. I entered the glass doors, with my heart pounding and before I could change my mind, went to the circulation desk and explained the issue. The librarian asked me to wait for a moment while she got her supervisor, a kindly looking older gentleman, who asked me to tell him what I had just told the other lady. So I repeated my sad tale, and assured him that I felt that I did not owe the fine, but if that was the only way I would be allowed to have a library card, that I would pay. He looked at me for a minute and then looked at the record he had in front of him. “This was almost 16 years ago,” he said. “We can’t prove anything because the record is so old. I will take it off your record, but going forward, you will be responsible for any fines you may incur.”I did not have to pay. And I had my library back. Again, in the blink of an eye, everything was changed. The “dirty public books” became clean and pure, once more. I left with 12 books that day that I was able to check out myself, no librarian needed. I am able to renew materials on my phone or online, as well as request things. In my 15 year long exile, much had changed.
I am not sure of the moral of this story. Is it that patience pays off? That human kindness isn’t dead? That there is a time and place for everything? It is whatever one wants to make of it. All I know is that I’ve come home at last.