Finding Home in a Public Library
I learned to read in a laundromat, sitting on yellow linoleum ledges surrounded by washed sheets and towels. While our clothes cleaned themselves, my mother would take me into the 100-acre woods, and over and over, we’d join Pooh and Piglet on their search for rainbow-colored berries. Then we’d go get more books from the library, and do it all over again a week later. When I was younger, going to the library was my treat. And the place that gave me access to thousands of books and movies, along with my first job in high school, it remained a sanctuary in my small New Jersey town even as I grew older.
The town you grew up in doesn’t always necessarily feel like home – I tell people wherever I go that growing up as a brown girl in a small, predominantly white town in New Jersey wasn’t the best. The pizza is sublime, there are bagels aplenty, but it’s not somewhere I grew up feeling a sense of belonging. So how can it be home?
Los Angeles has never felt that way to me. In the short ten months I’ve been here, I’ve never questioned whether or not I belonged. Beyond the endless sunshine and access to the best burritos and pupusas I’ve had, what makes LA home are the multitudes it manages to contain. There are so many pockets and communities from people of all backgrounds. Among others, there’s a Little Armenia, Little Tokyo, Little Britain, Little Guatemala, Little Ethiopia, Chinatown, Thai Town, Filipinotown. And the food and art the city has to offer reflects the multitudes it contains. Although my vegetarian diet prevents me from verifying this for myself, I’ve been told the Korean food in LA’s K-town is the best outside of Korea itself. Despite the fact that the Indian population in Los Angeles is relatively small — or maybe I just haven’t found it yet — I’ve never wondered whether or not I belong in this city, something I didn’t realize until I took a trip to the library.
The days leading up to my first visit in September, I was homesick not for my small town, but for a library. For books. For school, poetry, classrooms. September remained a month I associated with going back to school, even a year and a half after my college graduation. I was hungry, I was lonely, I was homesick. In my mind, the solution was getting a library card.
In the ride over to the LA Central Library, I triple-checked that I had my passport and two proofs of address. Getting my library card weirdly felt like applying for citizenship. My license and license plate both said “New Jersey” on them, but getting this card felt like making it official that I lived here now, that I was a permanent resident. No, a citizen.
I knew before moving out here that I wanted to make this a permanent home, a long-term commitment. But it took seven months for that to feel real: Walking into the Central Library’s doors, being welcomed by the familiar smell of old books and older walls, felt like home.
The LA Central Public Library library is one of the most beautiful ones I have ever been inside. It’s neither ornate nor sleek like the libraries I’ve seen on Buzzfeed round-ups of European literary grandeur. But it smells just right, and there is a gorgeous rotunda that leads into the children’s section and YA stacks. That feels significant to me, to place these sections next to the most beautiful part of the building, to prioritize children’s literacy above old collections of eighteenth-century British poetry, or Shakespeare, or nonfiction. It feels unpretentious and welcoming.
Established in 1872, the LA Library has 73 locations. It holds over six million volumes and serves over 18 million people, meaning, according to Wikipedia, “it serves the largest population of any publicly funded library system in the United States.” A quick cursory glance at their website shows several classes that are available to all patrons free of charge — a Zumba class for the athletically inclined, a creative writing workshop for those looking to learn how to write, and a “citizenship class for new Americans.” There are multiple levels of Chinese classes, English and French conversation groups, classes that teach you how to sign up for the state healthcare options Medi-Cal and CalFresh. There’s a Coffee and Conversation Group every week that offers people experiencing homelessness support and teaches them coping skills. If you walk through the Central Library location, you’ll see signs posted through all seven floors that say the library welcomes everyone, explaining a bit about their expansive, inclusive selection and how they cater to people with various disabilities. This is a home for all of us.
These resources are far more expansive than what I’m used to. My library in New Jersey, which I adore, has just a singular location, is two stories big, and has a fairly modest collection. For a person who found so much solace in so little, seeing a library with so many more resources ready to cater to that many more patrons — of many more backgrounds — moved me. I’ve since visited the library a dozen times over and full disclosure: I’ve cried during ten of those visits, in awe of how wonderful this place is, how much it offers, and what it feels like.
It still shocks me that libraries are largely free. You get books for free. Sure some libraries have a fee you pay when applying for a library card — the LA Public Libraries do not, thus making the library more accessible. If you are late to return an item, you might have to pay a fee, but this is largely avoidable for most library systems; you can often renew materials multiple times, and do so online.
In my visits to the library, I’ve been trying to fill the void I feel in this post-grad life. I was fortunate enough to study Creative Writing and English in college, and my departments allowed me to study with brilliant and generous professors that encouraged my love for poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. Here’s what I’ve been reading to try to replicate the sense of fulfillment I felt in the classroom, along with some old favorites for nostalgia’s sake. I invite you to visit your local library and grab some books too.
The Princess Diaries series by Meg Cabot, which I reread in its entirety without shame. Would highly recommend re-reading the books you read as a preteen if only for the nostalgia. Side effects include seeing too clearly why you are the way you are.
Chrissy Teigen’s Cravings and Cravings: Hungry For More, which serves as a reminder that I am no longer a college student and thus should stop eating like one.
Toxic Flora by Kimiko Hahn, which is a beautiful collection of poems, one of which is the inspiration behind my next tattoo. If you ever forget why you love words — or science, or storytelling — I’d recommend her poetry.
Am I There Yet? by Mari Andrew. You may already be familiar with her work from Instagram, and her book manages to magnify the beauty and poignancy you may have already seen in her illustrations.
The Love Affair as a Work of Art by Dan Hofstadter. I’m still working through this one, which explores the lives of several great figures of nineteenth-century Paris, the role and function of the love letter, and more.
Kingdom Animalia by Aracelis Girmay, which is a wonderful collection of poems that are emotionally-charged and bitingly accurate celebrations of death, desire, and language.
Virali is a writer, plant lady, and burrito enthusiast based out of Los Angeles. She is a west-coaster by birth and again by choice. You can find some of her previous work at The Ringer and Girlboss.