When People Gather at the Library

by Bill Peak

I once read that the average peasant in the seventeenth century would, in the course of his life, learn about as many facts as are contained in a single Sunday edition of The New York Times. The message behind this rather striking conjunction of Jacobean rustic and twenty-first century newspaper was, of course, clear: we moderns should be thankful to live at a time when the world places so much information at our fingertips. Still a part of me couldn't help feeling a little envious of that peasant and the simple life he had led, however uninformed.

For one thing, he never had to experience the guilt I feel when, from time to time, our family's Sunday edition of The Star Democrat (full of who knows how many fascinating facts) makes its way to the recycling bin before I've had time to read past the first page. I keep seeing that little fellow in leather jerkin, straw hat, and woolen hose dreaming of a time when his descendants will get the chance to read and learn. What would he have said of my squandering such an opportunity?

Which may go some way toward explaining why I find the mere existence of the library's periodicals section so consoling. Have you ever visited there? Let me describe it for you, describe it as I might some domestic scene remembered fondly from childhood.

Here one finds five comfortable chairs set in a semi-circle, as if old friends had just drawn them up for a chat. Racks full of colorful magazines line the walls. Next to each chair, at elbow-height, stands a small wooden table ready to receive your hat, the sections of the paper you have not gotten to yet, or the magazine you intend to read next. In lieu of a potbellied stove, the chairs encircle a newspaper stand, their occupants warming themselves before daily and Sunday editions of The Baltimore Sun, The New York Times, The Star Democrat, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post. And best of all, in a set of racks just behind the chairs, back editions of these same papers are kept for an entire week. I've got a whole week to catch up on news my wife threw out when it was scarcely two days old!

But truth be told, I think it's really those slightly out-of-date, but eminently comfortable chairs that make the library's periodicals section so interesting.

When I was a boy, folks used to gather on a wooden bench that sat out in front of the gas station at the end of our street. There they would sit and talk, offer the station's proprietor unsolicited advice on automobile repair, and nurse their cold drinks down to the warm. In Dad's day, the same types would have sat whittling on the courthouse steps. But such places have grown rare. There is no wooden bench at the Wa-Wa.

But there is the periodicals section at the library. Here a rotating cast of characters comes and goes, newcomers fast becoming regulars, regulars observing old-time pleasantries: nodding to each other when they arrive, maybe sharing a chuckle now and then, a bit of news. Though it is the reading materials that have drawn them here, at another level these patrons clearly enjoy the chance this place gives them to sit with others of their kind and enjoy a sense of community, the day wearing on at a more leisurely, civilized pace.

So here's a paradox for you: the very place that supplies you with all that information we moderns are supposed to be so thankful for—the library—is also one of the few places left where, for a quiet moment on any given day, you can stretch your legs out by the community cracker barrel, develop a nodding acquaintance with folks you might not otherwise meet, and slowly, visit by visit, recall what it means to be human.