The Providence Public Library


The Providence Public Library is a grandiose pile of masonry on the corner of Empire and Washington downtown.  I went in a few times in the late 1970s, but it seemed very hoi polloi to me. (What a nasty little snob I was in those days!)



Also, I was entering that phase in my life in which it was important that I own books rather than just borrow them.



Thirty-five years have passed, and my home bookshelves are groaning with books, loved and unloved, read and unread.



And a few months ago, for some reason, I don’t know why, I went back to the Providence Public Library.



And I fell in love with the place.



Let me tell you first that it’s open for less than forty hours a week.  It opens at 12:30pm four days a week, which is a crime against humanity.  I didn’t know that when I first started going there; I got there around 12:15pm one day, and was surprised to see a line of people waiting to get in.  And do you know why most of them were there?  To use the small bank of public-use computers.  By the intense look on their faces, they were job-hunting.  What does that tell you about the usefulness of the public library?



The other sections of the library – the reference stacks, the reading rooms, the music rooms – are very quiet.  Well, maybe “quiet” is a stupid word to use about a library.  Let us say instead: deserted.



Which is itself a sin and a shame.



But I have to admit I enjoyed it.



I wandered into the fiction section as if by instinct.  I was the only person for miles, amid racks and racks of books, acres and acres of books, with that musty elementary-school smell all around me.  Do you remember those crackly plastic covers that library books always had when we were in school?  They still have them.



I got my bright blue library card that very first day.  I have been back at least once a week, and I get such pleasure out of it.  I return my last week’s reading in the little basket, and I wander light-headed through the stacks. 



And I’m borrowing them!  I’ve finally gotten away from the idea that I have to own books!  I used to love the idea that I owned them, they were mine, I could keep them on a shelf and pull them down anytime I wanted to . . .



Sometime around the ten-thousandth book, this stopped making sense.



Let’s face it: ultimately we own nothing, not our homes nor our cars, not even our precious books, not even ourselves.



We can only ever borrow things and use them for a while.



And maybe libraries are a perfect expression of that.



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