Like kind, cardiganed nannies, libraries appear in every chapter of my life: The rustic, one-room library of my childhood; the school libraries that provided safe haven in every institutional box I passed through; the libraries that propped up my parenting experiment and provided distraction and brain food when I was starving. I can breathe in libraries, even when I struggle to in the real world. The bustling, demanding, and unpredictable landscape outside presents a constant challenge to me, but the noise and mess inside books is somehow manageable and nourishing. There’s no magic like a book, to calm me down, fill me up, and give me strength. And there’s nothing like a library — so many free books! — to convince me that, despite all evidence, all is right with the world. Or will be, if I can just read all the books!
Two libraries elbow themselves to the front of my memory. The first was a small, nondescript building in a small, boring town. I walked two miles nearly every day to this library, pushing my firstborn in his stroller. It was our outing, and we made the most of it. An hour or two in the children’s section, surrounded by picture books and kind people, gave me hope for humanity, hope for my son’s future world. On the way home, the heavy bags hanging from the stroller provided books for us both, ballast against the storms. It was in this library, a few years later, that I would hide and weep and write furiously as the wreckage of my marriage threatened to overwhelm me. Those stacks, that space, gave me safety and structure, and encouraged me to fill pages with my fears, and my hopes. It helped me find my future.
My most cherished library memory came earlier, however, when I was in college. I majored in Art History at an enormous state university, and was voracious in my appetite for knowledge about the way humans express themselves. The art that called to me was old and representative, because the pictures were stories. What did the canvasses say about the people who made them, the people in them, and the people who saw them? I was searching, it seems, for the book in every picture. I was looking for the stories. I was hoping to learn how to be in the world and those old pictures gave me clues.
I remember my stunned disbelief upon discovering that, in addition to a main library with over a million volumes, my university also had an art library. An art library! I had never even heard of such a thing. I know now that it’s common, but I was young and unworldly — a product of that tiny hometown library, the size of the room in my current house that we now call “the library.” The massive campus collection was already enough to overflow my capacity for wonder, but an ART LIBRARY? It was the largest trove of picture books I’d ever seen! And backstory for days. Here were more than 100,000 volumes covering art history, archaeology, decorative arts, studio arts, photography and graphic design. There were several floors and high, long rows of full shelves, perfect for hiding and drowning in bookish glee — just like any other library, but with art! Old folios and print monographs, journals and bios and technical treatises. I was astonished and, like a kid with free access to all the candy in a very large candy store, I went all the time. All the time. Between classes, after classes, while waiting for classes. On days without classes, I’d wander and peruse. I did my work for non-art classes in the art library. I distracted myself from academic stress there and would’ve eaten my meals there if they let me. I probably tried.
I marveled at the mind of Hieronymus Bosch and the light in Caravaggio (as well as his twisted mind). I drew inspiration from women like Judith Leyster (whose work was sometimes attributed to Frans Hals), Rachel Ruysch (who enjoyed greater fame in her lifetime than her compatriot Rembrandt), and Lavinia Fontana (whose husband was her assistant and managed her house and 11 children — in the 16th century). I was haunted by Goya’s war and Marat’s bath. I fell into cave paintings and medieval architecture and lush Renaissance frescos. I learned about color and miniatures and trompe l’oeil. Dali’s wife and Duchamp’s nude, Turner’s Slave Ship and the Elgin Marbles. Gods and guilds, theft and provenance, monsters and magic. Portraits, princes, politics, and Pop. The whole world, the whole of history, is found in art. And it was all in that library.
The art library helped me make it through school. It helped me through break-ups and make-ups, through writer’s block and exam anxiety. It stood as a serene, silent, almost holy space in the chaos of college and my angst-filled, growing-up self. It was crammed with the stories of the stories, the images of the past and the narratives of their time. Those were the days of the card catalog, and slowly sliding those long wooden drawers in that high hushed space is a sweet memory very specific to that library. Those drawers have given way to the welcome convenience of online access, but I would happily spend a lazy afternoon riffling through the Dewey Decimals, in that formative art library. I’m sure there’s an unfamiliar portrait or icon or goddess just waiting to whisper her secrets from the past.