Or…why I always try and know where the library is.
When you’re travelling, the world can seem like an endless pit of places to put your money. Arriving in a new town, the first things you’ll probably notice are the shops, or the people selling tours or the restaurants who have translated the menu into your language and added 20%. These are all part of the experience of being in a different place, and can be delightful experiences.
But sometimes, travelling can make you feel sad and lost. Sometimes, even being in your home country — even your home town — can make you feel strange and low.
From my experience, a place which can offer a moment to regain your balance is the local library. Public libraries are there to welcome you without charge. They’re peaceful, and give you a moment to sit down and get your bearings.
In practical terms, they offer toilets and a place to recharge your phone. They also offer a chance to merge for a moment with folk working and studying there. You can be surrounded by books; even if you can’t understand the language, seeing that many words and worlds around you is a reminder that you are still amongst humans and humans are (often) tolerant of a curious stranger.
“Well-run libraries are filled with people because what a good library offers cannot be easily found elsewhere: an indoor public space in which you do not have to buy anything in order to stay.”
Zadie Smith, writing in the New York Review of Books
Libraries are places which can be used by people who’ve lived in a town for 60 years, by refugees and those just passing through. They have spaces for young children, and worried people and happy people and interesting people. There’s a space for a spectrum of community. There’s room for older people sighing over newspapers, and for worried teenagers searching online for birth control when they should be studying for exams. And for you.
When the world is spinning too fast, the library offers steady ground.
“Walking the stacks in a library, dragging your fingers across the spines — it’s hard not to feel the presence of sleeping spirits.”
Robin Sloan, Mr Penumbra’s 24 hour Bookstore
And if you’re travelling, and worried about using public facilities in place where you don’t pay taxes? If you can afford it, spend money locally. If you can’t afford it, remember that you being there won’t use up the library. Your presence adds to the fabric of the library’s purpose, it doesn’t wear it out. You are sitting in a space made for people and ideas.
“Libraries have a special role to play in our knowledge economy. Your institutions have been and should be a place where parents and children come to read together and learn together. We should take our kids there more.”
Others will use your hometown’s libraries, and you will use theirs. Libraries are an international exchange programme of community. They’re part of a global creative economy, which you’re allowed to be part of. Your intellect is welcome there, but so are your tired limbs and your sore heart. Read a book, write a book or stare at the wall while your heart slows down.
And, once you’re back on an even keel, then you can explore the world again, knowing there are infinite ones you can escape back to, just beyond the library door.