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Our Reading Lives

There’s No Place Like Libraries: A Personal History of Library Use

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Libraries Are the Reason I Read.

I grew up in a poor household. During my earliest childhood, I remember our family owning two books, besides those mandated by school: an atlas of the world, and a collection of fairytales that my parents allowed me to buy at a school fair.

There really wasn’t much of a budget to spend on books, but I was lucky enough to have stories to read because of the various libraries I had access to my entire life — and a few books gifted on special occasions, like Christmas and my birthday. 

I honestly do not know what kind of reader I would have become without libraries, and while I like to believe I would have found my way to books one way or another, I am glad I had libraries to guide my way to them.

How It All Began

I’ve documented often enough in my posts here at Book Riot how my story with books began: I took a book from a cousin when I was about 10 (and never gave it back), stumbled upon the rest of the collection at the library of a new school, and I’ve been reading ever since.

I still have fond memories of my first library, on the ground floor of a public school that taught 5th to 9th graders. More than just the books I have discovered there, I remember the librarian, a young woman who was very kind and had a knack for drawing.

When we had assignments for class and needed to do a presentation, she would help us draw the titles on the poster board and offer a few ideas. For some reason, I was extremely surprised that an adult would be so artsy, even though she looked very young. Nowadays, I actually think she was even younger than what I thought she might be at the time (you know how 20-year-olds tend to look ancient in the eyes of children).

I spent five years at that school, and I used to bring books home at least every other week. I became versed in adventure series, of which there are quite a few in the Portuguese market. I found the Goosebumps collection there and eventually started reading a little above that level, transitioning into books that dealt with specific themes for teens, like finding yourself, relationship with parents, love, and loss.

During my school vacation, I usually reread the few books I had at home, and although I was always happy to go back to school — I liked school and I enjoyed spending time with friends — I especially looked forward to going back to that library and having new books to bring home.

I was usually careful with due dates, but not even I escaped paying a few fines: 10¢ a day. Worth every cent (my parents might disagree).

A Library With Three Floors…And No Fines!

It’s curious how my relationship to libraries is intimately connected to me moving schools, or moving altogether.

At 15, I started high school and left my small town school to attend it in the city.
Although the school had its own library, I have a very vague memory of the place. Because my studies were in communication, one semester our class got assigned some work at the school’s library: they still used paper files to keep books in order, and we had to organise all those files in alphabetic order, make sure they were all where they were supposed to be.

I can honestly say that if I had harboured any ambition of becoming a librarian back in the day, it certainly died slowly the more paper files I was assigned to organise. Sure, it was nice that at least we got to do it as a group and during a time we would otherwise be attending a class, but I was happier to leave the library behind than I was to walk in it thinking about the work ahead. That particular library had a cosy, movie-like atmosphere, though: loads of volumes with leather covers, a lot of dark wood, and the bookshelves had glass doors and thin metal bars protecting the books from prying hands.

There is a chance I might be making this up accidentally, memories changed and shaped by actual movies, but it’s what I remember, so that’s all I have to go on, and I want to believe it is the truth. And while that library did not entice me, across the street there was the city library, a world of books just a few steps away. With mostly digital files.

When I moved to Belgium many years later, I was shocked to find out I had to pay yearly for a library card, because my hometown library was completely free. You got a free card — only had to provide your photo, and you’d have access to loads and loads of books — and there were absolutely no fines.

I admit I took advantage of this fine-free situation more than once (or twice). Rather than request an extension on my loan, I’d simply deliver it one or two weeks later, with no consequences. At the time, I didn’t have any big thoughts about libraries and fines, but I thought it was pretty nice I didn’t have to shed money to keep a book a little longer.

The fact that I didn’t have to pay to use the library at all seemed a given to me at the time. Right now it baffles me that a public library worked like that, and I still don’t know how they got the funds, but it is not hard to imagine that if the city government thinks something is important, money happens. I’m glad the public library of my home town was seen as something to which money could just happen. Because it should be the default.

This library only solidified my relationship with books, and opened up a world of literary delights to me. It had a little bit of everything, especially well-known authors, and classics.

During my teenage years, I read Agatha Christie, Michael Ondaatje, Nick Hornby, and Bill Watterson, and discovered a love for romance.

I was never not reading, or rereading, and marvelling at how happy reading made me. It was an escape into lives that weren’t mine, but somehow, miraculously, became my own each time I dove into the pages of those books.

I still visit that library when I go back to Portugal to visit family, and although I don’t have a library card that grants me access to its books anymore, there is always a welcoming chair to sit and to read for a little while. 

An Interlude Of…Too Many Years

With my love for libraries, you’d figure that the first thing I’d do once I got to a new country would be to get a library card, but that is not what happened. In fact, I’m sad to admit, I didn’t own a library card for eight whole years.

Now, if you have composed yourself from the shock, allow me to explain: I moved to Belgium in 2011, to a very small town. In Belgium, I lived in two places, one with a population of about 20,000, the other with a population of 9,000. I’d only started reading in Dutch last year, and the offer of English books when you live in a Belgian small town is…very limited, if existent at all.

In Dessel, the smaller place, the library was open only a few times a week, for about four hours each day, in the evening. Because of all this, I ended up relying on my ereader or buying books online.

It was a dark period of my life, not because I didn’t have access to a library — although that helped — but because I read more than I could afford.

Even when buying mostly second-hand, it was becoming an expensive hobby, so I turned to downloading books, which is why my ereader was so appealing.

And while I didn’t loan books from the library during those years, I did use their services. When I couldn’t focus at home and needed to write, I’d often find a place at the local library to seat and get away from my head.

I call these eight years an interlude because I still appreciated libraries for what they can do, even though I didn’t use them. In fact, one of my first posts on Book Riot, back in 2017, was about my love for them. Interluded…But not forgotten.

And I’m Back In the Game!

In 2019, I figured I was done with Belgian’s lack of English books in their small town libraries, and I decided to move again, this time to Rotterdam! (Reader, I fell in love and moved out, Belgium’s small-town libraries had very little to do with it).

I like to call Rotterdam a small big city (this is actually the first time I refer to it like this, but I’m picking it up because it makes so much sense), because it has everything you might need available, but it’s not crowded. It’s a lovely place to live, and it has several libraries, with a vast catalogue of English books.

Moreover, a few months after my move, I decided to apply to become a bookseller and my lazy ass finally realised that it was time to improve my Dutch if I wanted to do something I really loved for a living…so, with hope in my heart and a twinkle in my eye, one of the first things I did when I moved here was to head to the library and get a library card.

I paid for it, but y’all, did it feel good! The bookish world was mine for the taking…again!

And again, the library gave me much more than just books: free wifi, a comfortable place to sit and write, and an amazing view of the city. Going up and down those escalators, I felt the high that endless possibilities provide: when I got that library card and went to check what was available, my heart expanded in my chest. I had all these books, and none of the fear of picking up a read I might not like. Because, you see, it was all free for the taking. I could pick ANY book to take home, and return it if I didn’t like it without compromise or loss (unless I was late delivering it, because fines, but I am glad to say I became a LOT better at that).

I was almost overwhelmed but, mostly, I was ecstatic. I loved picking up a hot chocolate from Starbucks, sit at a table with my laptop, and then check out more books than I could read in three weeks on the way out.

Then And Now

When the pandemic hit, libraries took a toll over here as well. For months they were closed, but you still could pick up and bring back books.

Luckily, there is a lot that can be taken care of online through apps, and the library in Rotterdam even provided free ebooks and audiobooks to anyone, with or without a library card, during the harshest months of the pandemic. They understand that books aren’t just a hobby: they’re an escape, and a way to cope with the world, especially when life throws a whole ass pandemic at you. And, once again, proved that libraries are always there to make our lives better.

Because of that, and because I used my discount at work to basically spend my entire wage buying books like there was no tomorrow — or, rather, as if my tomorrows aren’t counted — I ended up using the library a lot less in the last half of 2020, and I haven’t yet renewed my library card since it has expired. 

As I am writing this, I actually realise I have visited the library only a handful of times since last year, and I miss it. I miss those hardback volumes beeping as I scan them and put them in my backpack, ready for a new adventure. I miss finding unexpected stories, using the library app to see if they have a book I want to read and feel the joy when they do, waiting for an email that the books I’ve reserved are ready to be picked up, requesting that they add something to their catalogue and having it approved. 

I miss picking up a hot chocolate from Starbucks and sitting at a table, looking around me and knowing I am in a place where something is made right. 

Libraries. Humans have failed — and continue to fail — at many things, but they made libraries real. Imagine that. 


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