Some of the best times in my life have been spent at a library. It was the one place I could find silence, the freedom to take out umpteen books, and leave them on the table after skimming through a few pages, forget about the world outside and the state of my life in it.
I still run to libraries when I need my space—and yesterday I did just that. After a work-related meeting I decided to spend the entire afternoon and evening at the Singapore National library, at its big central division, which is home to one of the most diverse collections I’ve seen in a library so far.
I felt a little guilty, sitting at the reference section (I needed to look through one book, but nothing serious), working on my fiction while intermittently browsing through random books—maybe I was taking up the space that someone doing genuine research needed. I sat there long enough–till the time I realized all other seats were taken up, and then vacated mine—hoping an eager research scholar would take it up!
I walked out for a meal, came back, and headed to the lending section…deciding that some of the blocks in the story I was writing came from a lack of research. I needed to know a few facts before I could get on with my narration. I love the that this library lets you search its catalog on your phone—the catalog is on a free library wi-fi network. Having picked up the books I needed I went in search of a chair and found one at the far end, surrounded by about 20 other chairs in different clusters.
To say that the first book I picked up was an absorbing read would be to insult it–it talks about a hugely successful individual coping with multiple personality disorder–each of the 13 individual personalities inside him has a chapter in his/her voice. I finished it in the 8 hours I sat at the library, without much movement, and only the occasional glance around me.
It is this morning, when I look back on the evening that I remember what I saw in those glances, but did not register at the time: an old man sleeping, open-mouthed, behind a newspaper, a middle-aged-gap-toothed woman in a cheong-sam sitting with a book on feng-shui while fitting her small body cross-legged on a chair—apparently meditating, a young man in office attire with a laptop bag and headphones, dozing behind a book titled Sex after Fifty, a pair of schoolkids snogging behind one of the bookshelves (I thought the library had cameras and frowned on such activity, but apparently not), a woman of indeterminate age in heavy make-up sitting with a shoe magazine, periodically receiving low-beeping calls and repeating/ writing down dates and times in a breathy falsetto, while a hearing impaired young couple to my right kept up a sprightly conversation full of excited gesturing.
With all those images returning to me, I feel less guilty about hogging a seat I didn’t really need. Not because other people did it too, with lot less serious preoccupations than mine—but because watching this pantomime of unabashed humanity in a country known for its lifestyle governed by rules, that too at a strait-laced place like a library, was not only a treat for a writer like me, but could also be safely termed ‘research’.
When was the last time you spent a day at the library? How much of that time did you spend people-watching?
It has been far too long since I’ve allowed myself some time to just hang out at the library. Thanks for this post, because it’s reminded me why I need to head to the library again!
The last time I spent the day in a library? Today. I work in one. Even on my lunch hour, I visit my local library to check out books and talk with my friends (the librarians). I do my people watching along the way.
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Ah yes 🙂 libraries have been a refuge for most of my adult life. Tho I have to admit I get lost in the books more then I people watch. I’m always researching a list of questions. It feels strange to admit that in San Francisco I’ve spent much more time in Book Stores than libraries. I blame the internet and all the really neat small run, genre specific or art book only stores in this city. I can easily say libraries have changed and improved my life. For example, I taught myself to etch via taking notes like Rembrandts mortar mix, then going to the chemical supply, etc… I can easily get lost for hours and wonder where the time went. I sure hope e-books don’t destroy libraries, they are a very important 3rd place and people refuge.
Uva, I so totally agree with your last sentence!
The last time I was in a library was at university, I’m sure of it. I can safely say I spent zero of my time people-watching. In fact, I have spent zero time ever consciously people-watching. When I’m in public places, I tend to tune out other people. This seems to put me in a minority when it comes to writers.
As long as you’re Writing, you don’t have to be similar to other writers in another way. All writers write—and that’s about the only compelling similarity 🙂
I wish I had more time to go to the library. I love people watching, and there’s something so wonderful about a place of books: it brings all people from different walks of life together in the same place, looking for the same thing.
Krystal, yes, libraries are a sort of paradise for people watchers 🙂
I volunteer at the local library a couple hours a week. I never leave without at least a couple books that would’ve otherwise gone back on the shelf. I also get a kick out of seeing the books I read when I was a kid, and seeing good parents read to their kids. Less entertaining, when people drop their too-young kids off, and when people get arrested. You gotta take the bad with the good 🙂
Absolutely, Kelly. We have to take the bad with the good :). My library is mostly good though—other than snoring old men every once in a while 🙂
^__^ I’m the librarian for my tiny fishing community in Alaska. I spend every weekday (and sometimes my Saturdays) at the library. There’s nothing better. Oh, and it’s rarely quiet — especially when kids come in. It’s the perfect place to be — happy, bright, and people talking about books. It’s HEAVEN for a writer. ^__^
Amy, your comment brought me a happy smile. All libraries should be like yours. 🙂
Can’t say I’ve ever spent a day in the library, but when I was in college (many years ago) I would sometimes spend several hours at a time there. Part of that time was spent people watching.
In the past decade I’ve not gone to a library many times and when I have I usually just go to pick up something that I ordered online and they just have it waiting for me at the front desk.
Tossing It Out
Lee, I do that too—“reserve” a book and then go and pick it up!
The last time i spent in a library was about six years back, while in college.
We’d aim to *study* at the library, but it never worked for me because by the time I got through the stuff i wanted to borrow, it was time to pack up and leave. I used to borrow about three books every two or three days and nurse a very bad hangover (from reading) after every library run.
I haven’t been to a library since then, because I don’t belong to any at the moment. 🙁
Anna, a reader like you needs a library subscription…you must have a few libraries in your city?
There are two libraries near my home. One has completely outdated reference books, and the librarians are mean and clearly would prefer it if you just stayed home. The other has 1/3 of the space dedicated to DVD’s. I asked a worker if she could direct me to the periodicals. She said, “What’s a periodical?” I said, “Nevermind.” The place was packed with people that were very smelly. Not my ideal place to write.
God, I’m so sorry to hear that. The libraries here are a complete opposite of what you’ve described. Thanks for stopping by to comment, and welcome to my blog!
Sorry to admit it been a few years since I visited our library…
Alex, you could stop by one of these days and see how it goes 🙂
I’m still a huge library fan. I like to browse through the shelves, looking at old books. It’s funny–when I’m there I rarely touch the computers.
I don’t touch computers much when I’m in the library either. Thanks for your comment, and for stopping by my blog,
Things change, and if you don’t miss libraries, that is okay too. Singapore is such a small place that oases of peace and quiet, like libraries, haven’t lost their charm for me.
Honestly, it was in the early 2000’s and I feel guilty admitting that. The Internet and instant information has replaced what was one of my favorite places and I didn’t really notice it.
I love libraries and bookstores. It has been far too long since I went to a library just to sit and read. Next time, I will plan to spend more time. I hope I see people enjoying the library, whether they read or just visit. You have inspired me to return to a place where I learned at an early age the wonders of books.
I do go to library every once in a while, but don’t spend too much time there. I plan to change that.