The Public Library

an essay by writer Nickolas Butler

Nickolas Butler

Come inside here, stranger – the doors are open now. You’re safe. It is warm here, in this library. I want you think about that word – warm. I want you to hold it in the palms of your hand like a spark nested in the softest, driest tinder. It is warm here, and quiet. Words are air, sure. But they are warm air, exhaled from inside you. Welcome.

The sounds you hear are benevolent. Kind little sounds. The tip-tip-tapping of fingers on keypads. Everyone’s fingers touch those keypads. The beeping of books checked-in and checked-out – books in circulation, and movies, and music, too. This building is dry, friend, and here is a quiet corner for you to close your eyes. No one will bother you for a little while. Everyone at some point in their life has fallen asleep in the library. As a child, as a student, as a tired parent, as a retiree … this is a good place to fall asleep, because you are safe and unjudged.

Libraries are the best of America. Do you know that in most countries around the world, libraries are rarer than rubies? There are no small-town libraries even in oldest Europe. Libraries are an American promise, and through the library door a democracy shambles in; the poorest and the richest. Everyone’s library card looks the same. No one’s voice is louder than anyone else’s. No one’s money really matters; return your books on time, keep your promises, lend, borrow, share, pay your penalties, forgive those who can’t pay – every seven cycles there shall be a jubilee, a forgiveness.

No delusions – you never have to read Shakespeare here – but you can. You can file your taxes – or not. You can apply for a job – or simply work a crossword puzzle. You can listen to Dvorak or Miles Davis – or Megadeth or Metallica – just ease those earphones onto your head. The bathroom is clean – use it. Wash your hands, wash your face. Here is a mirror; part your hair, brush your teeth. You’ll feel better, I know you will.

Daylight is fading, and I don’t know where you’ll go from here. I am sorry about that. There should be libraries for night-owls, too. But librarians need their sleep. We say librarian – but what we really mean is – social worker, janitor, teacher, professor, psychologist, travel agent, security guard, and bibliophile.

How do you write about poverty? What can you say? You’re against it, sure. But then what? The library doesn’t try to cure poverty or homelessness. The library doesn’t even open its mouth to comment. As always, the library is mum, mute, non-partisan, discreet. The library just promises to be a safe place. Warm as I have said, and dry. The library doesn’t even promise a hello or a cup of coffee. But it is a place to go, a place to be, a place to rest, a place to sleep, a place to read. In the end, all it promises are books and for a little while. And yet, people find the library, like a refuge, a refuge, a refuge.

Nikolas Butler is the author of several novels, most recently Little Faith, which was published this month. Find it here.