As a kid, there was no library in my neighbourhood. Instead, a "Bookmobile" would be set up once a week in the parking lot of our local shopping mall, giving us access to a rotating assortment of books from the public library. I made my parents take me there pretty much every week, and I can remember running up the metal stairs into the trailer, eager to see what new books awaited me. (I was not an even remotely athletic child, so only the most exciting of things would get me to move quickly.) I would return from those visits with a grocery bag overflowing with books and immediately park myself down on the couch to start reading. I loved it.
My love of libraries and reading lasted until medical school, when it became my job to read and learn. I replaced my piles of library books with Netter's Anatomy and Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, and I almost completely stopped reading for pleasure. Where I used to easily read a book every week, after the start of medical school, I was reduced to one book on Christmas vacation and one on summer.
As a result, I also stopped going to the library. I could no longer be guaranteed to finish a book within the three-week lending period, and I certainly couldn't be guaranteed to remember to return a book, so there was no longer a place for the library in my life. Instead, I would periodically go to my favourite local bookstore and wander its shelves, dreaming of having time to read all of the books. When I found something that really appealed to me, I would buy it and save it for a rare stretch of holidays.
It wasn't until I finished my licensing exam three years ago that I once again had time to read on a regular basis. But by then, I had gotten so out of the habit of going to the library that it didn't even occur to me to go back. I just kept buying books. Until M started making fun of this increasingly expensive habit.
"Why don't you just go to the library?"
I blinked in confusion. What was a library again? And what purpose did it serve in my life, now that I was earning an income and could afford to to buy my own books?
I was initially resistant to the idea. I wanted to own books! And I didn't want to be limited by the small selection of our one-room local library. Nor did I fancy having to pay overdue fines when I inevitably forgot to return the books.
I would like to say that I was a mature adult and didn't stubbornly refuse to listen to M. But. It took discovering Mr. Money Mustache* and wanting to live within my means to get me to go back to the library. And, just like when I was a kid in a frigid trailer trying to grasp books through my thick wool mittens, I fell in love with it.
Of course, there is the fact that books at the library are free. This is awesome. I have now read 26 library books in 2017 (yay completing my Goodreads challenge!), which has saved me over $500. Based on the 4% safe withdrawal rule, that's $12,500 less that I need to save for retirement by using the library. But it's so much more!
I can take out books I might never read: When I used to buy books, I would be careful to only buy something I was pretty certain I would read to the end. I'd look up reviews, I'd ask friends, and I'd stand in the bookstore reading the first chapter to make sure it was something I liked. Picking a book was a process! And it limited the books I would read to books that I had some reason to think I would like (e.g. a book by a favourite author). But with library books? If a book looks remotely interesting to me, I will take it out. When I see an interesting book suggestion on Twitter or Facebook or someone's blog, I add it to my "To-Read" list (now at over 200 books). It has greatly expanded what I am reading, and my reading life is richer for it.
I don't have to finish a book I don't like: This ties into the previous point, but when I spent $20+ on a book, I felt obligated to finish it, even if I hated it. This has sometimes led to me wasting time on a book that I didn't enjoy or, worse, not reading at all because I didn't want to move on to another book until I finished the one I hated. Not with library books. Hate a book? Return the bloody thing and move on.
I can get books from any library in my city: Until M introduced me to it, I had no idea that there was this thing called inter-library loans that would let me order books from any library using my computer. It's like magic. See a book recommendation, order it online, pick it up on my way home from work within a few days. It is amazing, and it is actually easier than going to the bookstore to buy a book.
The library reminds me to return books: Email reminders of when books are due! This is awesome. I still end up paying fines sometimes, because I am lazy, but I pay far fewer fines because of this. Plus, I can renew books online, which often lets me avoid the fines altogether.
Libraries are part of my community: I recently read Jane Jacob's book "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" (from the library, bien sûr), in which she looks at all of the important elements of a vibrant city. She talks about all of the little daily interactions that contribute to a sense of community - chatting with the local butcher, giving a spare key to a trusted neighbour - and since reading it, I have been thinking a lot more about what makes my community. And, it turns out that the librarians are now part of my community. The three regular librarians recognize me, and we will often spend a few minutes chatting about books or about the librarian's cool necklace made from locally salvaged wood. It's a small thing, but it makes me feel a little more connected to the place I've lived for the past seven years.
So, after this love letter to my favourite place in the city, it is time to read my library book.
Are you a library user? Why or why not?
*I learned today that Americans spell it "mustache" and Brits (and Canadians) spell it "moustache". Who knew? I love language!