The Miracle of Libraries

Benjamin Baruch Woody

I have often thought that one of the most tragic events in history is the partial destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria. Who knows how much human wisdom was lost? A certain kind of “alternative history” has sprung up from speculation about the truth about Ancient History. Writers such as Graham Hancock  and Brian Godawa have mined this tradition of esoteric literature with great success. Alexandria was perhaps the first Library (I will always capitalize the word Library because it is one of THE great words in the English Language) tragedy, but it was certainly not the last. One of our great non-fiction writers, Susan Orlean, just released The Library Book about the terrible fire at the Central Los Angeles Library. Orlean is a master. I highly recommend all of her books. But enough about Library disasters, we are really here to talk about the miracle of the Public Library.

I was born and raised in Cullowhee. My mother stayed home with my three sisters and me and every Friday we came to the Library in Sylva (where the Police Department is now) and stayed all day. It is hard to describe the anticipation that built in me as each Friday approached. Every Friday felt like Christmas morning. Actually, the Library was (and is) better because I got to pick out my own “gifts!” I was the curator of my own entertainment, intellectual growth, pop culture, and just plain fun. There was something also forbidden about the Library. I don’t mean in a darkly mysterious way, but that there were things there that were not at home. These books, comics, movies, and music might be things your parents didn’t want you to see. This was imminently alluring to me. In fact, my parents banned me from the great Robert E Howard Conan books. The covers were too risque. So I sat in the corner of the Library and read them there. (If you know Phil or Gayle, please don’t tell them.)

Quickly, I fell in love with such disparate writers as Hermann Hesse, Bill Watterson, Lloyd Alexander, and Ursala Le Guin. I didn’t have to be a kid from the Great Smoky Mountains (not that it was bad), but I could be any one I wanted. Here was a place that I could be more than just the parts of me. I was large, I contained multitudes.

Libraries are a place to travel, to empathize, to be an actor. You can put yourself in  the shoes of a child in China. You can go to a wizarding school and become a legend. You can be a young girl who is bullied and yet triumphs. If it can be thought of, chances are someone, somewhere in the world has written about it. Libraries are full of endless possibilities. They nurture the imaginations of the future. I always felt like anything was possible on that Friday morning as we walked into the Library. I still do.

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