I spent hours of my youth at the public library. Hours and hours. Sometimes I went just to check out books, but more often than not I went just to spend time there. The Iowa City Public Library had record players and CD players you could use, and I’d flip through the albums (I first listened to the Beatles at the library), pick out a stack, and set up at a record player, put on the headphones, and read or do my homework or just daydream. I loved it there because it was the only place I ever went where people left me alone.
At school, one was usually supposed to be doing something in particular place, and if you were out of that place, or doing something else, you got in trouble. Stores are notoriously hostile toward teenagers, and of course they want you to buy things. I hate buying things. If I wanted company, I’d go to UAY or, if the weather was good, to the ped mall down town, but when I wanted to be left alone, I went to the library.
Aaron has a short jibe about How to Be Alone, a video that’s been making the rounds on YouTube and that suggests the library as a good place to go to be alone. “Not exactly what weâ€™re going for, eh?” he asks. Commenters on the post beg to differ, and I do too.
Oh, I know building community is important. I know gate counts are important, and program attendance statistics are important, and Facebook fans are important, and people getting to know their librarians and their neighbors is important, and people creating content is important, and all that stuff is important. But every time I hear someone talking about how we need to make libraries more popular and not just places for nerds, every time I hear people talking about programming like it’s the most important and perhaps only thing we do, or should do, for teens, a little part of me wonders what place there is in that library for the fifteen year old me, the girl who just wanted listen to records and wander the stacks and look at old magazines and, well, be left alone?
I also fell in love with Jonathan Franzen while reading his book How to Be Alone, which is about a lot of things, but mostly it’s about reading and thinking and exploring ideas and following the paths of your own particular mind — things that are rightfully solitary pursuits. Some of the greatest things I have ever done have been groups and with groups. But not all of them.
“The first thing books teach you,” Franzen says, “is how to be alone.”