Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the public library in Hicksville, New York, where I grew up in the years when librarians were revered and where their domains were quiet and benign autocracies. I didn’t always know the names of the Hicksville librarians, but I did know that they knew stuff. They knew where every book was, and they quickly learned which books I might like. They knew that kids my age would love the Childhood of Famous Americans books, and “We’ve put them all together so that you can find them easily. Would you like to try Zack Taylor, Young, Rough, and Ready?” They knew when I was ready for “real biographies” as well, and guided me to them. They knew where the Freddy the Pig books were, and when the next one in the series was due back in; they promised “to put it aside” for me for when I came the next Saturday. They knew that since I liked the Homer Price books, perhaps I’d enjoy the Henry Reed books as well, or maybe the Herbert books—and I did. They knew I liked books about Arctic explorations, Greek and Norse mythology, and baseball. They knew I liked comedies, and when I was ready, they gently steered me toward The Little World of Don Camillo because “This one’s a little more complicated than the others you’ve been reading, Gary, but I think you might like it.”
They just knew stuff like that—and they were always right. The Little World of Don Camillo became, and remains, one of my favorite books. It’s on my desk as I type this now.
The public library was only six blocks away from where I lived, an easy walk along Jerusalem Avenue and past the colossal Hicksville Junior High and over Fourth Street, the only crossing that had a streetlight. I went most Saturdays with my grandmother, and we walked close beside each other, rarely hand in hand since we both had our quota of books to return, and then to carry back home. We’d return the books down a metal chute when we got to the lobby—it was exciting to drop the books (“One at a time!”) with a whoosh down into the unknown depths where someone must have been waiting for them—and then turn across the glass-lined lobby to our own ways, since my grandmother went to read the newspapers and find two or three novels in the Adult Section while I took a left-hand turn, pulled back the heavy glass door, and descended a long staircase to the Children’s Section, holding onto the big railing and walking down steps whose sparkling sandpapery strips kept my feet from sliding from right paths.
As I say, I’ve been thinking a lot about the Hicksville Public Library. The quiet of the Children’s Section. The patterned carpet that stilled the sounds of my sneakers. The bright walls with posters about next summer’s “Reading Contest!” that I signed on for the day after school let out. The loving adults who wore nameplates: “Gary, did you like the Zack Taylor book?” The rows of shelves and the challenge of reaching the top ones. The comfy tables where you could sit, the overstuffed chairs where you lounged in luxurious comfort, the Main Desk where librarians reigned, the lovely complexity of the cards in the front envelopes of the books that carried the history of the loans, the knowledge that most of the dates stamped on the card in Zack Taylor were from my own repeated borrowings. Dang, even the sound of that stamp!
I wouldn’t have said it was a safe place—I didn’t know a place that wasn’t—but it was certainly the only public place my grandmother would have left me by myself for the hour that she took upstairs to read and meet others her age to talk about whatever adults talked about.
Decades and decades later, I think about that library often now, and what it meant to a kid who at first struggled with his reading, and who—once he finally “got it”—found it a place not just safe, but assuring; a place that exposed a world of infinite knowledge and delight that was packed into its holdings, hosted by the librarians who had access to that knowledge and delight and who would gladly share it with you. Who were, in fact, eager to share it. “What we have loved, others will love, and we will show them how,” I read in Wordsworth’s “Prelude” in high school; I immediately knew that the poet must have been talking about librarians.
Since then, I have spent a career visiting forty or fifty libraries a year—and since the restrictions of covid have been pulled back and writers have been invited in person as we used to be, I’m doing this again. I see all this still: the eagerness of the librarians to share. The kid who comes in for the next book in the series. The quiet kid who comes in who has written her own pages and chapters and who imagines that someday, her book will be on these same shelves. The librarian’s suggestions for something entirely new, since Lamont, you’ve finished reading the entire Rick Riordan series, and I wonder if you’d like the new Roland Smith. And Trisha, have you tried Brown Girl Dreaming? I really think you’d like it. I think you’ll find it’s a great read—and it’s an important book. And Damian, Sunshine, that new Jarrett Krosoczka sequel I told you about, is finally in. I put it aside for you. Let me know what you think. And Marcie, The Hate You Give is back in. I think you’re next on the list …
And I feel all that I felt downstairs in the Children’s Section of the Hicksville Public Library: the energy of reading, the communal and individual sense of the free exchange of knowledge and thoughts and ideas, the delight of a novel that grabs my attention, the character who seems sort of like me who is thinking the same stuff I’m thinking and facing the same things while growing up that I’m facing, the character who is totally unlike me and who maybe I can understand a little better now, and I’m so grateful, so infinitely grateful that the librarian told me about this book. And all of this is still presided over by the wonderful librarians who know stuff, and who will put it aside for you because they can. And it will be waiting for you the next Saturday.
And now, when one of those visits to a library is done, I sit down over coffee with these librarians who meant everything to a scrawny kid from six blocks away along Jerusalem Avenue, crossing carefully at the light on Fourth Street, and who saved books for me and who asked me what I thought because it mattered, really and truly mattered to them, what I thought. Now they have some of my books on their shelves and sometimes I can hardly believe they’ve done this for me until I remember that librarians have always done things for me, and you know what we talk about after the visit?
Anger is rarely productive, so I try not to be angry about this, but the librarians who did so much for me are now the librarians who are afraid.
I am recently back from library visits in a state where the legislature is seriously considering a bill that allows school librarians who have certain books on their shelves to be charged with a felony.
In many communities, the librarians who meant everything to me are now suspected and investigated. Having certain books on their shelves means not that they are bringing the best writing to kids, or offering books with characters who might look like you and be like you, or sharing with you our nation’s authentic history, or gifting you with new ideas and insights that you may never have encountered. No. It means that librarians are indoctrinating, grooming, and offering pornography. These librarians supposedly have an agenda now, and their community is being told that that agenda is pernicious and vile and it needs to be shut down.
Librarians, they say, are the enemy.
The examples of retributions against librarians are so numerous as to have become almost cliches. The librarian who takes off the bumper stickers advertising her profession because the pickups behind her have been purposely driving dangerously close. The community members who are running for the school board and whose campaigns are mysteriously well-funded. They’re running so they can establish mandatory advisory groups to oversee all library offerings, since the librarians can’t be trusted. The claims that librarians are bringing in “those graphic novels” that are sexually explicit. The vicious and ignorant lie that comes when a librarian opens their entire catalogue of holdings to show that a book currently being complained about isn’t even on their shelves, and they are charged then with holding secret shelves where they keep those books off the record—a triumph of weird conspiracy over fact. The librarian who now has regular check-ins with the local police because of the threats against her.
In America—dang, in America—we now have librarians with regular police check-ins!
We have librarians who must choose between their integrity as professionals, and pulling books like The Hate You Give from their shelves, in order to keep their jobs. We have librarians who are viciously accused of having agendas meant to hurt children. Imagine giving all you have in your professional life to kids, and then being trashed in local school board meetings, or on some national stage, where a candidate uses his or her own prejudices to vilify a person whose love for books and children is so boundless that they have taken a job that doesn’t pay as well as, say, a gun dealer’s, and whose professional goal is all about bringing kids and books together. My fear for them, and my sadness, that radicalized voices have brought hatred and suspicion and ignorance and lies into their lives, is overwhelming.
Talk about the hate you give.
A few months ago, I went back to the Hicksville Public Library. I was on my way to a gig out on Long Island, and I only had a few minutes to take Exit 41 South off the expressway, and to drive down Jerusalem Avenue and park behind the junior high. I know this is probably all about ego, but I went to the library and checked to see if they might have one or two of my books on the shelves of the Hicksville Public Library. You can’t believe how much I wanted them to. And you know what? They did. I almost cried. It felt like some sort of important loop had been closed. My elementary school self could never have believed that would happen, but there it was. Because of librarians. Because they love kids and books, and they live to bring them together. As they did for me. My gratitude toward these folks is boundless; it is absolutely boundless.