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Central to Its Subversive Mission

It’s Saturday morning, and my best friend is hugging a bookshelf.

“Oh my God. I love it so much.” She presses her body against its corner. The oiled shelves span the length of the library wall, but she would hug the entire thing if she could.

This is the woman who licked one of the rocks at Stonehenge, after all.

I duck my head. “Stop it. You’re so embarrassing.”

“Shut up! Leave me alone.” She (we’ll use her author name for this, shortened to L) sticks her tongue out at me, so I know my cause is a hopeless one. L is too lost in the majesty and history of this place to care about public appearances.

It was my fault, after all. I was the one who suggested we go on an architectural tour of St. Louis’s Central Library during L’s recent whirlwind visit. The first time I toured the library after its remodeling, I found myself enraptured by the institution's seamless integration of the modern and the historic.

When a sound studio and virtual reality system cohabit a space with a ceiling modeled after Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library, you know you’ve found something special.

By the way, did I mention the restored ceiling in the Grand Hall? The coffered masterpiece of seductive golds and reds glows with the light of historic, hanging chandeliers. The Grand Hall is just one wonder among many. Tours last an hour, and I’m sure they barely scratch the surface of all the treasures hidden (yes, hidden, including secret rooms) in the massive facility. Central spans an entire city block, and its history reaches back into St. Louis’s earliest days—over one hundred years ago.

My first visit to the renovated library inspired me to include it in a scene in my current #WIP, a young adult paranormal novel titled The Nefarious Nine. It’s a paranormal jaunt, so I naturally added some library patrons of the ghostly sort, who silently strolled the marble floors filled with an awe equal to that of their living counterparts.

L has been my fiercest and most enthusiastic critique partner for the duration of our best friend marriage. When she said she was planning a one-day visit to my city, I knew I had to take her to the space that had filled me with so much inspiration.

Little did I know the focus of our visit was about to shift.

Only fifteen minutes into the visit, and I’ve achieved my initial goal. My best friend is in love with Central Library—but maybe a bit too in love. Tugging on L’s shoulder, I gesture to the tour group, already five strides ahead of us. “Come on, we’re getting left behind.”

“Ugh.” She dislodges herself and smooths her skirt and leggings. “Fine.”

“I can’t take you anywhere,” I grumble. We jog to catch the others.

The tour guide, a parent and teacher, gestures to the extravagance all around us, especially above our heads. In a motherly gesture, she shows us how to angle our gaze safely. I wonder how many tour guests have thrown their necks out gawking at their surroundings.

We move into the next hall. The guide continues detailing the long history of the library, her tone stately and professional. My mind wanders, as it often does when I’m dazzled by a new place. Her voice forms a pleasant, comforting background noise as I soak in the themed banners, arched windows, and rows upon rows of books.

I catch bits and pieces of her words. “You may remember … back in 1950—”

An old man’s interruption snaps my attention back in place. “—I remember there were a lot of street people back then. A big problem, the street people in here. Still a problem.”

Another library guest, wearing a stocking cap, layers of coats, and worn boots, looks up from his newspaper. He scowls and quirks an eyebrow, then he makes a point of straightening in his chair in front of his spacious desk covered with reading materials.

L glances at me, and her scowl mirrors the man at the desk’s face. I also bristle. L and I share the same thought at that moment: What an ignorant fuck!

We both open our mouths. We both mentally prepare to clap back at this outward vocalization of ignorance and callous disrespect. We both step forward.

But, we never get to deliver.

Because the tour guide speaks for us.

Unlike us, she maintains perfect calm. Her tone does not waver from the friendly expertise she provides when discussing any other feature of the facility. “Libraries in the United States have always served as a place of shelter and safety for unhoused people. This service to communities has always been central to the American Library Association’s mission to provide equal access to information for all. We are proud to provide a variety of resources to all of our patrons, especially those experiencing homelessness.” She smiles at the group with red lips and white teeth.

L and I look at each other. I widen my eyes and whisper, “Damn.”

She replies, “Right.”

The man at the desk also relaxes his posture. He leans back in his chair, flaps his newspaper, and continues reading.

The tour guide pivots on her bootlets. “Now, if I could direct your attention to the…”

Satisfied, we relax and enjoy the rest of the tour.

I hope the tour guide at Central Library will pardon me for this retelling. I’m sure her actual clapback was even more astute, more savage. I can’t quote her exactly, but that’s my best recollection, verified by L.

The rest of L’s visit was a whirlwind of family love, games, food, and wine. Only after she boarded the train to return to Chicago did I reflect upon the incident.

I realized I had witnessed something just as historically significant as Central’s pillars and bookshelves. A tour guide had stood in defense for the library’s patrons—all of the patrons. And, as she had stated, American libraries have served as safe havens for impoverished people for as long as libraries have existed in our country.

Libraries provide free shelter and information to all. Regardless of color, faith, orientation, or class. Regardless of political party.

Think about that for a moment. Think about the vision in that concept. Think about the rebellion or the subversive, steadfast perseverance.

The current climate would have us believe that capitalism and cash are undisputed kings in this country. It’s hard not to ponder what has happened to a desire for true equality. It’s hard not to wonder what has happened to the American dream of hard work’s leading to success. Sadly, everything necessary for a person’s happiness and welfare, including healthcare, food sources, and, yes, education, can be determined by class and zip code.

I’m a public school teacher, so I know that the quality of a school district is largely determined by the amount of money earned by the residents of that district. Of course, there are exceptions. I like to think I work at a school that thrives due to the dogged determination of my colleagues to provide an excellent education in the face of many obstacles. But, it’s hard. It’s hard to provide the highest quality instruction possible when the school can’t or won’t provide money for textbooks or pencils.

Yes, I’m saying it—public schools are not meeting their promise to the American people.

Yet libraries continue to succeed. They meet the needs of a digital world while continuing to hold fast to their original mission and purpose. Anyone, anyone, can walk up the grand steps of Central Library and find a warm corner to read and relax. Everyone is welcome to enter in pursuit of its safe shelter and endless wisdom.

So, visit your local library. While you’re there, play a video game. Peruse the shelves. Enjoy the warm or cool shelter it provides. Relax, and remember you are in an institution as ingrained in American history as the flag mounted outside its door.

And, while there, be respectful to all of the patrons, regardless of their reason for entering.

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