Even apart from their miles of books, I love libraries and have since I was a kid. They represent sanctuary, hot or cold according to season, and promise a sort of diplomatic immunity: Here, obey the minimal rules and we’ll leave you alone. There’s no hard sell. You read what you want to read. You are a critic and can trust the wisdom of serendipity. Librarians are here to enforce the comforting silence. You’re never lost with Dewey or Library of Congress as compass and map. Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1809: “Nothing would do more extensive good at small expense than the establishment of a small circulating library in every county.” A library is the American ideal of free men and women pursuing ideas freely, anarchists and closeted Nazis, the grandiose and ascetic, Hasidim and Garveyites, the get-rich-quick and the Catholic Worker, autodidacts all. Among the prose poems in The Bourgeois Poet, published in 1964, Karl Shapiro, a great poet of Americana, included “Libraries”:
“Libraries, where one takes on the smell of books, stale and attractive.
Service with no motive, simple as U.S. Mail. Fountain and palms,
armchairs for smokers. Incredible library where ideas run for safety,
place of rebirth of forgotten anthems, modern cathedral for lovers.
Library, hotel lobby for the unemployed, the failure, the boy afraid
to go home, penniless. Switchboards for questioners: What do you
know about unicorns? How do you address a duchess? Palladian
architecture of gleaming glass and redwood. Window displays of
this week’s twelve best-sellers. Magnificent quarters of the director,
who dines with names of unknown fame. Lavatories, rendezvous of
desperate homosexuals. In the periodical room the newspapers bound
with a stick, carried like banners of surrender to pale oak tables.
Library, asylum, platform for uninhibited leaps. In the genealogy
room the delicate perspiration of effete brains. Room also of the
secret catalogue, room of unlisted books, those sought by police,
manuscript room with the door of black steel, manuscripts stolen in
delicate professional theft from abroad, sealed for seventy-five years.
Sutras on spools of film. And all this courtesy and all this trust, tons
of trash and tons of greatness, burning in time with the slow cool
burning, burning in the fires of poems that gut libraries, only to
rebuild them, more grand and Palladian, freer, more courteous, with
cornerstones that say: Decide for yourself.”