There is something about a public library that invokes a sort of holiness. I love to think of all the tiny worlds housed inside the glue and paper bindings perched so innocently on the metal shelves, just awaiting the grip of a new explorer. This weekend I found myself leaving my happy little mountain perch to visit the immense Central Library in the heart of Portland’s Pearl District. The historic building is beautiful with gorgeous high ceilings, ornate marble floors and three floors of books to explore. I have to say that I was very impressed with the lightning fast database that helped me to quickly and efficiently find the subjects that I was researching for my book . The overwhelming amount of information available made me aware of how I have neglected our library system in favor of the quick and easy allure of the Internet.
One excellent feature of the Central Portland Library is that they offer a special room for writers, with plenty of private tables, hook-ups for your laptops and help in finding the books you need for research. This amazing service is free of charge but it does require an application process. I found myself stumbling into a packed third floor reference section weighed down with about fifteen thick encyclopedias facing the prospect of sharing a table and wishing that I had thought to reserve the private room a few weeks earlier.
I am a person who appreciates a wide bubble of personal space. I hate sitting close to strangers on airplanes and feel awkward in the tight squeeze of public transportation. The place was packed and I gave up on trying to find a small table where I could work alone, settling for the uninhabited half of a larger table towards the back. I began to wonder, what is it about our modern life that makes us feel so territorial? We are so incredibly connected to each other electronically, but in our face to face encounters we shrink into our personal bubbles, terrified of real interaction. I am just as guilty of this as the next person. When the people sitting across from me began coughing, almost in unison, I actually reached for the hand sanitizer in my purse, as if I could designate an antiseptic safety zone behind the thick stack Celtic encyclopedias.
It was about this time that I noticed the armed security guards walking in slow circles around these tables toward the back, keeping a close eye on the coughing occupants. As I caught a glimpse of the plastic bags stuffed under the table and noticed the threadbare jackets, it hit me that my tablemates were possibly part of the homeless population that wander the streets of downtown Portland, always in the corner of the public eye. The portrayal of America’s homeless in popular culture is that of crazy, dirty people yelling on street corners. The people sitting around me were not any different than anyone else. They were not smelly, or crazy or talking to themselves. They were sitting quietly, respectfully reading stacks of books and keeping to themselves.
Jasmine and I used to teach a poetry workshop at a local alternative high school in Spokane, WA. Many of the girls that we worked with were survivors, tough young women who had endured more trauma in their first fifteen years of life than I had experienced in a lifetime. We taught these young women that words can be weapons, tools to break through the barriers that enclosed them. Sitting in the quiet of the Central Portland Library surrounded by the peaceful stacks of books and the grateful concentration of my tablemates, I realized that words can also be a sanctuary. Our libraries are precious resources for the shelter they offer us emotionally when we lose ourselves in books. Sometimes, they are important for the physical shelter they offer as well. Our libraries are closing at a record rate, leaving a whole segment of society without the means to purchase books stranded. Here in Hood River our local branch closed last year, and although the community voted to re-open it, I have to wonder how many young minds were left out in the cold this winter without the sanctuary of words and the comfort a warm and quiet space can bring.