In the spring of 2018, I had the great good fortune to go to Cincinnati’s beautiful Mercantile Library and hear Susan Orlean speak about a nonfiction book she had written that had not yet been published. It was going to be called The Library Book (it’s since been released to great acclaim and success). In her talk, she mentioned a surprising fact: There are more libraries in America than McDonald’s. And as of 2019, there are more libraries in America than Starbucks. No offense to the golden arches or the grande latte, but this is a hopeful thing.
Libraries are an oft overlooked, but critical part of our society. And they don’t just loan out books—libraries are still many people’s only point of access to the internet. Libraries are resource and refuge not just to bookworms but also to job seekers, kids, and those experiencing homelessness. Librarians are some of the most highly educated and arguably under appreciated professionals in this country.
Ask most readers, and they will immediately say they love their libraries. Ask many authors, and they will say the library is the entire reason they write at all.
We asked some of our favorite writers what they had to say about this cherished institution.
This article originally appeared in the September 2019 issue of Writer’s Digest magazine. Click here to subscribe and access more articles like this.
Nicole Dennis-Benn, author of the forthcoming novel, Patsy (Norton/Liveright, June 2019); and the debut novel Here Comes the Sun (Norton/Liveright, July 2016). She was born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica, and now lives in Brooklyn.
“When I first came to America, I hung out in my local library in Hempstead, Long Island. I didn’t have the best living situation, so I found a safe space there. Then when I started school, I had a work-study job in the campus library. I was able to pretend I was shelving books while I really stood reading them — James Baldwin, Alice Walker, and, of course, Toni Morrison. I also didn’t have much money to buy books, so I was able to read for free in the libraries. Once I became a writer, I developed even more respect for libraries and what they represent to their communities, especially for people who can’t afford books.
“I love discovering new books. I remember the summer of 2003 when I was having a hard time finding a job after graduation. I ended up at Queens Public Library during the days since it was across the street from the job agency. I got so excited discovering new authors that helped me to cope with joblessness—Linda Vilarosa, E Lynn Harris, Sister Souljah, Zane, Wally Lamb, James McBride, Arundhati Roy. I read widely—I didn’t know there was such a thing as ‘genre’ back then. Queens Public Library had books for everyone on display.
“I wish people knew how much of a safe space libraries are and just how valuable they are to the community. I never felt unwelcomed when I stayed to read all day. The librarians were always helpful and knowledgeable. To this day, I still go to the library regularly to check out books.”
Sandra Cisneros, author (and illustrator) of Puro Amor (Sarabande Press, 2018); A House of My Own (Knopf, 2015); and the classic coming-of-age novel The House on Mango Street (Knopf, 1994), which has sold over six million copies, been translated into over 20 languages, and is required reading in elementary, high school, and universities across the nation. She is a dual citizen of the United States and Mexico and currently lives in San Miguel de Allende.
“Besides books, the library introduced me to something I didn’t know I needed as a child—big doses of quiet. My house was filled with the frenzy of nine people, most of them under the age of five. Imagine what I felt when I discovered the Legler Public Library on Chicago’s west side.
“I could not believe a building existed where talking was outlawed! In my home, if you didn’t shout, you didn’t get heard. But here was a house of books, quiet as sunlight, a place where I could read and think and, most importantly, nurture my imagination.
“Since then, I now know I need quiet in order to create. The world easily overwhelms me. I first noticed I needed silence when I made my first visit to the library.”
Janet Fitch, author of the novels Chimes of the Lost Cathedral (Little, Brown, 2019); The Revolution of Marina M (Little, Brown, 2017); the #1 national bestselling White Oleander (Little, Brown, 1999) which was translated into 24 languages, is an Oprah Book Club book, and the basis of a feature film; and Paint It Black (Little, Brown, 2006), also widely translated and made into a 2017 film. She lives in Los Angeles.
“We were a library family. Every two weeks, we descended upon our local branch and checked out the maximum allowable 12 books. My parents taught me to always take out the maximum, in case there was something I didn’t like. I’d hold out my arms, let my father stack books into them. ‘Have you read this? And this? And this?’ I gloated over my stash—deciding what to read first, what to save for later.
“Later, Los Angeles’ Central Library became my favored destination; a cathedral of books, with its mosaic pyramid and its WPA-muraled rotunda guarded by twin sphinxes. I always took the bus there, and it seems strange to be able to drive there now, wrong somehow. One should approach such a sacred place on foot, or at least by public transport. Like many an American author, when my first book was published, I took the pilgrimage to the grand New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue and ordered my book, which was delivered to me through the pneumatic system—just like Paul Varjak in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. That’s when I knew I was really an author.”
Elizabeth McCracken, author of the novels Bowlaway (Ecco, 2019) and The Giant’s House (Dial, 1996); the memoir, An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination (Jonathan Cape, 2009); and the 2015 Story Prize winning collection, Thunderstruck and Other Stories (Dial, 2014). She lives in Austin, Texas.
“Libraries they raised me. On my 15th birthday I walked into my local public library and got a job shelving books, and stayed as an employee for seven years, until I went to get my MFA. After I got my MFA, I got my MLIS. I love public libraries particularly, their generosity and eccentricity, their shelves and their weirdoes. Between staff and patrons, there are more charming weirdoes per square foot in a public library than any other public space, I think.
“It feels impossible to pick out a single favorite memory of a library, since so many are jammed together. But I am fond of the day I was working behind the circulation desk and a person came to check out a book and I looked at her name on the screen and burst out, ‘Leah Hagar Cohen? I’m reading your book and I love it!’ (It was Train Go Sorry, a magnificent book.) It felt almost like magic, that I had conjured her up, but in fact it was just wonderfully ordinary: I was a librarian and she was a library patron.
“Libraries are entire universes: full of books, yes, but resources and reference librarians (reference librarians are my heroes) and programs and classes and they are yours. And weirdoes (such as myself) are always welcome.”