Skip to main content

June 2024
View PDF

At the Library

Forget iBooks and Kindles. Give me labyrinthine stacks, plastic book covers, Dewey decimals and angelic librarians.

By John Cadley

A man being loud at a library

I'm sitting here in the Fayetteville Free Library in Upstate New York wondering if “free library” is redundant. I’m also wondering what I’m going to write about for my January column, and it’s not going to be about New Year’s resolutions, clean slates, starting fresh and all those other horrid ­clichés that only remind me of how miserably I failed in my intentions for 2018. Adding insult to injury, my birthday is December 30, so I still have those “funny” cards lying around that begin with “You’re not getting older, you’re (fill in degrading insult.)” I feel like having my wife return them with a note saying, “Unfortunately, my beloved husband, John, died the night before his birthday and did not get a chance to read your thoughtful card. Given his present condition, however, I believe he would fail to see the humor.”

So what will I write about? Wait a minute! Wasn’t I just thinking about the library? And aren’t Toastmasters eager readers, always seeking to improve their language skills? That’s it. I’ll write about libraries.

First, a brief history (which I generally prefer to long histories). Some 5,000 years ago in Mesopotamia (now Iraq), they started archiving commercial transactions on heavy, one-inch-thick clay tablets. This was around 2600 B.C. and marked both the end of pre-history and the beginning of hernia operations. Then the Egyptians invented papyrus, which allowed for the production of codexes (the forerunners of books), so you could fit a lot more writing on the shelves. This eventually led to the biggest library in the ancient world, the Library of Alexandria. Some believed that if you read every book in that famous building, you would know everything there was to know in the then-known world. A few did, and made history as the first human beings to be referred to as insufferable bores.

Not to be outdone, the Roman consul Asinius Pollio constructed the first public library in Rome to rival Alexandria. There were no late fees. If you failed to return a book on time, they just fed you to the lions. That’s why to this day Italians are fast readers.

“One cannot talk about libraries without mentioning librarians, who happen to be my favorite people in the whole world.”

In the Middle Ages, the monks ­compiled huge libraries of beautifully ornate, hand-copied tomes that were chained to the shelves. If you did manage to pilfer one, they chained you to the shelf until you repeated “Thou shalt not steal” four hundred million times.

Somewhere along the way, the Chinese blew everybody out of the water by inventing both paper and moveable type, which inevitably paved the way for Gutenberg and the printing press. Now the cat was out of the bag. Anybody could own a book.

America didn’t have a library until 1731 when Benjamin Franklin, who invented everything the Chinese didn’t, founded the Library Company of Philadelphia. This prompted U.S. Presi­dent James Madison to propose the Congressional Library in 1783. A section of the executive order for the Library read: “It is no longer permissible for politicians to know ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. Every member of the House and Senate is now required to read at least ONE BOOK so he knows something. ANYTHING.”

Of course, one cannot talk about libraries without mentioning librarians, who ­happen to be my favorite people in the whole world. Every one I’ve ever encountered has been polite, helpful, knowledgeable and soft-spoken. I even took an online test to see if I qualified for the profession. I don’t. The results said I lack “soft skills,” which basically means I’m not a people person. And they would not be wrong. I’m not even a person person. But some famous people have started out as librarians, including Mao Tse-tung, Pope Pius XI and—wait for it—Casanova. Soft skills, indeed.

So much for libraries. Now back to my burning question: Is “free library” redundant? It isn’t, and the librarian told me why. I’ve never been called ignorant in such a polite, helpful, knowledgeable, soft-spoken way.

Related Articles

Illustration by Bart Browne

Funny You Should Say That

The Reader’s Dilemma

A man pointing at a book

Funny You Should Say That

A Common Tongue


Learn more about the award-winning publication.

About Magazine

Discover more about the award-winning publication.

Magazine FAQ

Answers to your common magazine questions.


How to submit an article query, photo, or story idea.


Meet the editorial team.