The Libraries of Our Lives

Paul Doiron here—

This is National Library Week and a fitting moment to honor our endangered community treasures.

Like most people who become authors, I spent a great deal of my childhood in libraries. For great swatches of my life, they were my favorite places in the world. When I look back, I realize that libraries were places where my life took unexpected sharp turns, where I learned profound lessons about myself and the world. You could sketch my literary biography simply by listing them:

The Scarborough Public Library—Then located in an old building on the Black Point Road, it was where I discovered the adventure “histories” of Edward Rowe Snow who taught me that the town where I lived, with its real Indian wars and shipwrecks and “haunted” islands, was as enchanted in its way as Middle Earth.

The Scarborough Junior High School Library—Where I listened obsessively to the audio tape versions of Edgar Allen Poe’s short stories, checking them out over and over, until the librarian forbade me from doing so, in order to give other kids a chance to scare themselves out of their wits.

The South Portland Library—Where the librarian often expressed disappointment in my selection of books—Chariots of the Gods and The Late Great Planet Earth—not realizing that I was sharpening my critical reading and analytical skills, teaching myself to recognize dreck, but not being embarrassed to enjoy wild-eyed stories either.

The Cheverus High School Library—Where I was studying when the news came over the public address system that Pope John Paul I had died; a place, too, where I came to appreciate my Jesuit teacher’s commitment to intellectual rigor and debate, as exemplified by the fact that its shelves now contains my novels, with all their dirty words, shootings, and sex scenes.

The Sterling Memorial Library at Yale University—A veritable of cathedral of books, where I spent hours wandering amid the musty carrels. It was a place many of my classmates used only grudgingly at semester’s end for research (or as a rendezvous spot for sex among the stacks). But to me, going from shelf to shelf, it was like free associating my way through the sum total of human knowledge.

The Portland Public Library—Where, as an angry but ambitious young man in my twenties, I discovered the subversive, controversial work of other angry, ambitious men: Norman Mailer, Joseph Heller, Henry Miller, J.P. Donleavy. It was where I decided, once and for all, to become a writer or nothing, and where I came to understand that one of the good works novelists can do is to attempt to tell hard truths about human nature to people who’d rather not hear them.

The Rockport Public Library—Where I would sneak away on my lunch hours from Down East, reminding myself that reading wasn’t just part of my work, but also a way to entertain myself, and where I found a friendly library staff who supported me on the long road from aspiring novelist to bestselling author and who toasted my success with one of my first book parties—an event no one realized was as important to me as it was.

The Bailey Public Library in Winthrop—A smallish library where I packed the house on my book tour for The Poacher’s Son and realized that a modest community library, staffed by enthusiastic professionals and supported by book-loving patrons, can have a much larger soul than the biggest municipal or university institution (and where I will be reading from my second book on August 17, by the way).

I’ve lived many other places and enjoyed many other beautiful and friendly libraries, so this list is by no means exhaustive. But these are a few of of the places where I came to understood myself in new and surprising ways.

What are the libraries of your life?

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9 Responses to The Libraries of Our Lives

  1. Gram says:

    Libraries are still my favorite places – outside of my home – in the world. I was reading at a young age and never forgot the kindness of the Librarians to let me check out any book I could prove I could read. Some of the books probably went over my pre-school head, but she let me take them anyway.
    Hurray for Librarians and Libraries!!!! Dee

  2. Judi Kenoyer Stoy says:

    I, too, learned my love of reading at the Scarborough Public Library on Black Point Road. I loved the biographies, the stories about different countries and different careers, and romances. My mom’s good friend was the librarian when I was little and she would pick me up at home on Black Point and take me with her. She let me help dust the shelves. My only regret was the lack of bathroom facilities in the 50s!

  3. Kristen Lindquist says:

    I remember as a child being so amazed that librarian Nellie Hart at the old Camden Public Library (pre-renovation) always remembered what kinds of books I liked to read. The “new” library is beautiful and well-run, but that old one (virtually all in one room) really felt like home to me–no matter where we moved to around the state, I always had my library card there!

    • Joan says:

      I know what you mean Kristen. I grew up in Damariscotta, and loved that old library as a child. The librarians all knew me and made great recommendations. It was like a second home to me. Now we have a sterile new library with no character, and the librarians don’t even greet you when you walk in the door, much less remember you or know what you like to read (except the children’s librarians – they are great). Still, any library is a wonderful place to be and I’m grateful to have it.

  4. Lea Wait says:

    I’m not blogging this week, so I’ll mention briefly the library in Roslindale, Massachusetts, where my grandmother took me when I was five, that had ALL the Thornton Burgess books, which I proceeded to devour. The Glen Ridge Public Library in New Jersey, where I worked after school as a page when I was in 10th and 11th grades, and first discovered children’s books and books ON writing, and the stacks, and mysteries for adults … and read in corners whenever I could. Later, librarians at the GRPL ordered dozens of books I needed for my masters’ thesis on teen literature from NJ libraries on inter-library loan … even though I lived in New York’s Greenwich Village by then. Many of the New York Public Library’s branches. And, now, the Wiscasset Library, whose Archives room is where I do most of the research for my historical novels set in Maine. And so many more. Thanks for sharing your libraries, Paul!

  5. Joan says:

    Rockport Library is probably my favorite library anywhere. When we lived in Rockport we spent many hours every week in the library. The librarians were the best – they would always recommend books for us, and made us feel so welcome. It has one of the best children’s libraries that I’ve ever been in. Being a bit smaller than many, every book was carefully selected, and therefore there weren’t any that weren’t good. I can’t remember the children’s librarians name (Jane?) but she was the greatest!

  6. sandra gardner says:

    I got my first library card when I was six. The library, a branch of the main library in Malden, MA, occupied the basement of the Lincoln Elementary School I went to. It was a whole new world to me. A bonus for kids were the gold stars the librarian gave out for each book you read. Anyway, I was hooked for life. Whatever town I lived in as an adult, one of the first things I looked for was the library. At one point, when my kids and I lived in the married students housing at Stanford, the most exciting event of the week was the bookmobile that rolled into the grounds. I remember when I was pushing a carriage with my baby daughter in Cambridge, MA, and a neighbor child, about 8 or 9 years old, asked where we were going. When I said, “The library,” she said, “What’s a library.” That was one of the saddest things I’ve ever heard in my life.

  7. Leslie Dann says:

    Libraries here in Queens, New York are not “endangered” at all; they are full of what we call customers at all hours of the day. We have the most diverse county in the United States with about 160 languages spoken so with ESOL classes, programs, computer classes and yes, books and magazines in many languages plus books for kids for pleasure reading and school assignments, there are always people looking for something. One thing we aren’t is quiet, though!

    • MCWriTers says:

      Hi Leslie: Thanks for the note. I wish I could say that all Maine libraries are in the same fine shape as the ones in Queens. Each year many of them find their budgets on the municipal chopping block. With fewer resources, they have a harder time adapting to changing expectations from patrons; they can’t maintain their book- and journal-buying budgets while also investing in newer technology. Increasingly, too, you see elected officials punting on the matter of funding. Libraries find themselves ever reliant on Friends of the Library associations, and then selectmen use the private funding as an excuse not to provide adequate public funds (something similar has happened with certain Maine parks). It’s definitely a time of change, which in some cases means exciting new opportunities and in other cases existential threats.

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