The Shape of a Library, the Shape of Knowledge
Once, as a kid, while we were preparing for a move, I was helping clean out my family’s storage space and found a copy of Little Black Sambo. It was from the ’70s or before, possibly an original, and because of that, possibly valuable. I did not have any context for the book. All I knew at the time was that it was cute, though a little racist. I called my dad’s attention to it, and he most likely dismissed it as an old childhood book, but there had to be a story to it.
There’s a story to every library. Each is a collection of choices.
I grew up in a library, in that my family had many books. I was one of seven barely supervised siblings, however, so we rarely got the stories behind the books. Plus, my parents didn’t always organize their media: they might put The Street Fighter next to Friday, Scott Fitzgerald next to Malcolm X, Sade next to Bob Marley. Everything became collapsed in my home. There was no way to tell what was a classic and what was pulp, what was high art and what was low.
I grew up reading with everything being equal. There were no eras, no movements, no influences, influencers, revivals, or classes. As a homeschooled teen, I liked “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock,” “The Bells,” and “Where the Sidewalk Ends” about equally. I didn’t weigh things against each other or think too hard about how they connected. And even now, I sometimes forget the context of some of my favorite stories—they were timeless when I first encountered them, so I’m bad at pinning them to a single era or aesthetic.
My parents rarely bought new books, so my taste was hardly affected by the currency and curation of Barnes & Noble or Borders (rest in peace). Big-name bookstores are frightfully curated by capitalism. Sales cull the unread and under-read. All books are new. Anything that is not current is a reprint. Turnover is quick; unwanted books are stripped of the covers and trashed in weeks. Genres reign over the territories with displays and posters that call to the eyes and urge you to keep current. The displays want you to know what others are reading, right now. Even the classics, made new with abstracted graphics on their covers, stare you down with newness and ask that you keep up.
My family’s flattened library meant I generally had no idea what the rest of the world was doing until my dad found a treasure trove of stripped-cover books while searching for moving boxes and introduced me to the then-current craze of Animorphs. I later discovered that these could be found clothed in the local library.
It depended on the library, however. I spent a couple years relying on a one-room windowless box of a library, a library I hated in a desert I hated. I remember running out of books to read in the children’s section, wandering over to explore the teens and adults areas. Once I discovered inter-library loans, I would only visit that claustrophobic room once a week, dropping in and out like a drive-through restaurant. It took me longer to bus there than to pick up my books. My choices were shaped by the chaos of my youth, and were out of step with the rest of the world. Sure, I’d heard of The Hunger Games, but I was still stuck on Borges.
In a richer city in the suburbs of the first, the library had a catalog system onto itself and refused to loan to outsiders. I coveted their graphic novel collections, but lacked a city residence and therefore lacked a card. I could only read within their walls, gobbling up the words before close, sitting near a landscape window with the view of a city river.
I remember a library where the general literature section was too small for me, too padded with thrillers and mysteries and other glossy-covered books with author names bigger than the titles. I remember dozens of spinning racks of romance novels, that lone genre I’ve never read. I needed an inter-library loan to check out Tenth of December, or any Saunders at all. Whatever choices shaped that library culled it of my favorite writers. I like to think the building was filled with quick no-fuss prose that fit its working-class and time-stressed patrons, although it had become a space that didn’t suit me.
I’ve known libraries where I did and didn’t belong.
Once, I asked a librarian at the Roseville library, in Minnesota, how common the black fiction section was. I had seen one where Toni Morrison had been pulled away from the greats of literature to sit alongside street lit. Was this a push for readers of that genre to recognize her too, a kind of upsell? He asked me where I saw the black literature section, because this suburban library didn’t have one. He personally didn’t believe in it. I told the librarian that I sided with him. If I ever got published, I would not want to be relegated to a specialized corner of the library. Put me in the thick of Dewey’s alphabet soup. All of us, women, black women, all writers of color. I want us to own the entire space.
It was the Rondo library in St. Paul that had a black authors shelf, however, a library with far more black patrons. Maybe they had wanted Toni there. Maybe her blackness was a more important commonality than her content. Maybe I’m wrong, even now. Maybe my views are too colorblind.
In attempt to overcome chaos, librarians exercise choice through showcases. They often promote the books everyone is promoting: choices from Oprah’s Book Club, current New York Times bestsellers, or the inspirations for popular movie adaptations. I often see showcases of books that reflect current events: immigration, gender identity, indigenous history, or banned books. I’ve also seen showcases based on cover color or the location of the book on the shelves, giving a nod to the arbitrariness of it all. Small and independent bookstores show a similarly personable curation.
But alphabetization is ultimately arbitrary too. Edgar Rice Burroughs sits next to William S. Burroughs as if there weren’t fifty years between them. Aside from the gates drawn around genre and intended audience, the library is a place where eras melt together and all books are equal. Even the most ancient inventory rarely goes away, until it has to.
What other ways could we organize a library?
Organizing by date would be interesting, interesting enough that someone must have done it. Or location—imagine a library in the shape of the world. A library truly representative of its content would be a tree, a scatterplot, or a mind map in five dimensions with evolutionary branches. I can’t help but think of Borges’s library of all existent books. Borges, who opined, “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.”
I carry a library within me. We all do. Mine is becoming less and less random as I grow old, still so reliant on holds and reservations and keeping up with peers that I rarely just browse. One rare magical experience I’ve had was discovering the Hennepin Central Library’s periodical stacks in search of literary magazines. Few to none of the books could be checked out—the one I did attempt to bring home turned out to be filed incorrectly—but still I adventured, wandering alone with a string of numbers and letters jotted on a tiny paper card as my treasure map. Everything echoed in that space. The books were packed tight in shelves that slid to create aisles. These robotic shelves made space for humans only when asked. Even then, I entered the space with a tiny white card as my treasure map, and sought particular books.
When I meet up with other writers and readers, the libraries we carry play off each other. A friend draws a line from my (basic bro) love of David Foster Wallace to a critical essay by Zadie Smith, or infers from my love of Gabriel Garcia Marquez a possible love for Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. A life mentor gives me Americanah and Marilynne Robinson’s Lila, seeing something in my being that would be bolstered by these stories. A writing mentor suggests a list of contemporary black poets to read, and I can’t tell if they are seeing what I want and need or what they want me to be.
All recommendations are limited by the breadth of the internal library of the one doing the recommending. My friends’ internal libraries have their own slants: the year’s best, female authors of color, social justice–oriented writers, local writers, the (very white, very male) classics, current science fiction. I’m always overly aware of the limitations of others’ tastes when someone critiques my work and their best guess for my influences is the most popular example of a style I know deeply enough to draw from lesser known names. J. K. Rowling is on the tips of more tongues than Diana Wynne Jones. But Piet Mondrian comes more readily to mind than Barnett Newman; Justice sounds more familiar than Cassius, and isn’t there a saying that port is indistinguishable from merlot to the untrained mouth? Even mine.
I wish someone had directed me toward Abe Kobo during my Kafka phase. I wish someone had told me about Samuel R. Delany when I was binging Harlan Ellison. I wish Octavia Butler had been right next to Ray Bradbury all those years ago, when I had no friends and Goodreads was yet to be born and all I had was the chaos. So too when I first read Kelly Link. My first thought was, Where have you been all my life?
When I think back to all the windowless community libraries I’ve relied on, all the slush and slurry curated by small-town librarians in desert towns or urban librarians who work overtime in social services for the homeless patrons, I wonder about other readers in search of that where-have-you-been? sensation. I want to tell them, There’s something you’ll love, something just for you, I promise. But they’ll have to take initiative. There are endless collections of other people’s choices to navigate.
Maya Beck is a Cali transplant, lapsed Muslim, recovering otaku, part-time hermit, broke blipster, and socially-anxious social justice bard. She is also a 2015-16 Givens Fellow 2017 VONA fellow, 2017 We Need Diverse Book mentee, 2017-18 Loft Mentor Series fellow, 2018 Tin House Winter Workshop alum, 2018 Kimbilio fellow, and Paper Darts Story Editor whose writing has been published or is forthcoming in LitHub, Mizna, PANK, Pollen Midwest, NAT BRUT, Catapult, Water~Stone Review, and more. She works for a performing arts nonprofit in Minneapolis.
Illustration by Jazzmyn Coker