Elizabeth from Westland Michigan

Libraries have been one of the few constants in my short but turbulent life. I have always sought refuge within their brown brick walls, amidst dusty volumes filled with folklore and magazine articles chronicling the latest in revelations in science and social reform. I have no doubt that without my local libraries, I would have given up long ago my hopes of getting an education so I could make a difference in the world.

I was three years old when my father’s run-in with a drunk driver left him in a wheelchair and left our family in poverty. It was all my mother could do to keep her husband and we kids bathed, fed, and out of trouble, so unlike my friends, I couldn’t count on trips to skating rinks, adventures at theme parks, or even excursions to local restaurants and movie theatres (as most weren’t handicapped accessible) for entertainment. The one thing my family could all do together was to visit our local library for an entire Saturday afternoon, and bury ourselves in facts, fiction, and fantasies.

By the time I was four, my parents were encouraging me to invent elaborate plots by looking at paperback covers, to use an atlas to find the countries referenced in “Time” magazine, and to act as an assistant librarian by helping other children find “fun reads.” By age seven I was helping out in my school library whenever I got the chance, relishing those moments when the librarian asked my advice on displays or prospective purchases, and it was I that at age 11, convinced the school to get its first CD-ROM computer so I could help tutor younger students with reading games. Those early experiences gave me a love of learning, a sense that I could find a home in any town large enough to have a room full of books, and a desire to constantly explore new ways of gleaning knowledge—through the Internet, through audio books, through song lyrics, through archives of old posters and journals.

So when I was 12 and my home burned down on Thanksgiving Day, leaving me with nothing but the clothes on my back, it was the library I turned to for familiar relics—a book of Celtic faery stories, an audio version of “The Wind In The Willows,” posters of Frieda Kahlo’s artwork, “National Geographic” magazines with pictures of ecstatic dancers and paradises not yet lost. While my parents tried to rebuild their lives, I spent every waking hour pouring over Greek myths, biographies of suffragettes, and books on origami. Of everyone impacted by our devastating loss, I dealt with it the best, perhaps because I cared for nothing quite so much as the sense of comfort and community my local libraries provided me with, and that was something that I knew couldn’t ever be taken away from me, because libraries, like the legendary phoenix rising from the ashes, would always be rebuilt, replenished, and revitalized should they burn or drown or crumble into the earth.

Today I am 24 years old and I will soon graduate from the University of Michigan with a B.A. in Anthropology and minors in Women’s Studies, Psychology, and Sociology. My favorite place to spend my waking hours is still the library (there are 5 I regularly visit) and all that’s really changed is that now accompanying me every weekend is my three-year-old niece, who likes to act out the stories I read her with puppets during our excursions. This fall, I am due to serve in the domestic Peace Corps, educating young people about a disease I first learned about in a library—AIDS. I know that libraries are the reason I am as sane and productive and as thirsty for knowledge as I am today, and I hope that in applying what I’ve learned within their sacred walls, I can leave this world a little better than I found it.