The First Place I Go When I’m Stuck

The first place my mother took me after I was born was the South Portland Public Library.

It’s not a classic Carnegie building with vaulted ceilings. There’s no grand exterior staircase to symbolize a library user’s elevation through learning.

The South Portland Public Library was built in 1965 for $300,579. It’s a low-slung, concrete and glass building that the current director calls ‘Brady Bunch Modern.’ It was a long time coming. Lots and lots of hard work to fund it. No silver bullets.

And in early August 1984, my mother wheeled me – a nine-pounder with five days of life experience – in through the library’s ground-level entrance and into the basement municipal room. Dumbo was being projected on a roll-down screen. And my six-year-old brother wanted to see it.

One floor above Dumbo were the stacks. 83,267 books. Every resident of South Portland could take out three books, and there’d still be leftovers.

In that basement municipal room, you could hear the footsteps of people moving in the stacks. Reading the first few pages of Maya Angelou, Superman comics. Researching horses or decision-making or how to find a job.

When I got a little bigger and a little older, I joined those footsteps. Walked in through the ground-level entrance and into the 83,267 books with their stories and metaphors and facts and ideas.

I went for basic library services: novels, author talks, movies in the municipal room. But I also went when what was going on between my ears wasn’t kind or playful. When I’d run amuck in bored, calcified, ungrateful thoughts and my best plans had rotted out.

Because what’s stacked in the stacks and shelved in the shelves is, as Neil Gaiman once said, that basic human need: freedom. Freedom to try out different ideas, think in new ways about old things or old ways about new things, to move from where we are to where we want to be.

So, the library was the first place I went when I was born. Now, it’s the first place I go when I’m stuck.

And while it’s true that there are no silver bullets. There are public libraries.

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