How to Build a Public Library

Dear you,

My day begins and ends with some form of writing. I wake up while it’s still dark, make the coffee, and go upstairs. The attic is only partially insulated so in the winter there are blankets included on my chair. The kitten does her own duty—she jumps to my lap as soon as I’m settled and settles herself in her rightful place: space heater, mascot, teeny monster for now asleep. I organize the various slips of post-its carrying seeds of ideas littered across my desk; I choose which document to open on my computer that particular day. I block the internet. And for an hour and a half, I work.

And then, session over, it’s done. I close everything down. Rouse the kitten and carry her and my empty coffee mug downstairs. It’s 7:30 am—time for the other work.

My other work is the library. What to wear today—what will we be doing. Approachable but professional casual for those long days on the desk. My attempt at business professional for the days with meetings. Lately, it’s been jeans and a t-shirt because we are in the process of building a library.

When I got a library job here in Nashville, I was lucky enough to get the librarian spot at the branch that sorely needed a makeover. It’s one of our larger branch locations with some of the highest foot traffic and, to be honest, it was a very sad building. Carpets stained, furniture cracked and beat up from years of abuse. The whole place a dim reminder of the nineties and not in a good way. I loved it, despite its sadness.

I loved it, because for the first time in my library career, I felt a real duty to this community. In all libraries, we are doing the Lord’s work. But in this library, with these patrons who needed help opening email accounts so they could apply for jobs online, for housing, for food assistance, these patrons who just wanted a quiet, safe place, and those children who needed safe people—in this library, the Lord’s work was always close at hand.

It was in the way we sat with them at the computers and assured them that it would be okay, we would get this frustrating thing figured out. It was in the way we talked aimlessly with people who just needed to talk. It was the kids who wanted daily hugs. (In Texas, I had a no hugging policy because I didn’t want it to be misconstrued. That has now changed. When a child screams your name upon seeing you and runs at you with a hug, you have no choice but to comply and mean it.) And all the while, we did this holy work in an old building with bad lighting, with a layout that was outdated, with an aura of dimness. Not for lack of trying by the staff obviously, but it’s hard to fight the environment, something these patrons knew very well.

I had been told when I got the job that they would be shuttering the branch soon to renovate it. After a year there, they finally did. The designer asked us what we wanted to see in the new building. I made my requests—natural light, earth tones, a calming atmosphere, long sight lines, a children’s area that looked like it belonged to children. And then we went our separate ways for the year.

The year away from the branch has been a big one for me—I got to know the system very well, got to know everyone in it. I worked downtown and loved every minute of it. I re-wrote a novel, got addicted to checking email throughout the day to see if it’s a yes or a no (and it was always a no, up until last week.) I bought a house with an attic just for me; I grew my literary life. And now, the year almost done, it’s time to go back to the branch. It’s time to build the library.

I had checked in on the branch during renovation, nodded at the wood framing as the designer walked us through and told us what would be where. I couldn’t picture any of it. It wasn’t until the first day back, everything painted, the furniture in place, and all of us back to put books on the shelves and settle our work stations that I could finally feel it.

The building had been painted in soft greens and oranges. The floor was wood vinyl, with the appearance of hardwood but the noise reduction of carpet. The desks were all dark wood-paneled, the furniture very mid-century/70s modern. I could see from one end of the building to the other where the reading room ended in large, open windows of soft sunlight. The children’s area—my children’s area—was bright, playful, with a well-lit story room and stained glass windows featuring Aslan, the protective lion king of Narnia.

Reader, I cried. And then I set to unpacking the books.

I learned that there is nothing more satisfying than arranging a book display in anticipation of all the patrons who will come searching. I hand picked items that reflected the community, stories I knew they would want to read, covers with black and brown and white faces all smiling, all deserving of their spot in the light. I sat at the desk and envisioned it—the ways the community had changed in the past year, the ways it had stayed the same. The regulars sure to return and those that maybe moved on by now. And I thought again of them all and how deserving they each were of this light, this beauty, this perfect space.

They will come in again tired and bedraggled, some carrying too many bags, some in need of a shower. There will still be children who need hugs, patrons who just want to talk to someone, anyone. But they will do it now in a clean, well-lighted place. They will do it in a place of dignity and beauty, a library deserving of them.

I will start my mornings with writing. I will go to work and put books in the hands of people who need them. I will come home and pick up my own book, one that I need to round out that day and help me write for tomorrow. And then I will go to sleep, wake up, and do it all over again.

And that is how we build a public library.