A library at home or at home in a library

San Mateo County Libraries have been open since April. On May 24 the Redwood City Library doors will open to the public. The opening of libraries means the world, at last, is healing. All around the peninsula libraries are welcoming the community back inside. As we ease into normalcy, we will return to the world as we knew it, but we will bring what we have learned from the past year. I have learned to connect with my community library in ways that will strengthen my relationship with it.

For me, COVID has opened an on-line doorway to the Redwood City Library that I had not used earlier. Rather than waiting for access to ebooks, audiobooks, magazines, and newspapers, I get immediate online gratification. What more could I ask for?

For one, we can find a lot of information online, but a well-edited, peer-reviewed article from a journal or a magazine has so much more weight. For a piece I am writing from a raven’s perspective, I am able to check out Audubon Magazine, and from there, I teach my raven how to fly:

I glide toward the river and catch a glimpse of myself, of my wings spanned out, before I rise swiftly to see how far I have yet to go. I speed on toward the banyan tree.  I summersault in flight.  I wish for a witness to the beauty of my movement. I turn around. I fly upside down. I turn again and the wind rushes at me.

Friends of the Library

Not only am I able to access resources for my own needs, I am able to connect with others through the library’s community events. I get to share what I have learned about blogging and SEO in an on-line event through San Mateo County Libraries.

Those experiences are part of my life-long relationship with libraries. This relationship is like the proverbial Aashiq ‘आशिक़عاشِق of the Urdu ghazal: I am enamored by libraries. I seek them out passionately. I aspire to have one of my own. But I realize this need to own a large collection of books is based on my childhood in Pakistan when books were not always available the way they are today. I’ve always wondered if I should create a library at home or make myself at home in one.

Should I make a library at home?

At home, I like to keep some hard-to-find books of poetry and art. These are usually booksthat I can browse through when my mind wants to see but not read. Apart from that so many of my books just wait for me to dust them off and pick them up again. And I don’t think I ever will. Maybe I should drop them off at the free libraries in the community, such a great idea. I could even donate them to the Friends of the Library book sale.

In both cases, I will get to share my books more widely. I’ve tested this thought with others and have received mixed reactions. There’s nothing like keeping my favorite book in case I want to read it again, is one of the responses. Sometimes it’s, I hate to give away a signed copy. But really, how often do we pick up a book once we’ve already read it? And very few books are powerful enough to change us the second and third time as it did the first.

What to keep?

Many readers are adamant that books at home are sacred. But how many of us re-read books we have collected? Is our collection a demonstration of how we want to be perceived? With so many bookshelves in the background of Zoom calls, it looks like we prefer the look. I’d love to know what you think.

And which books to give away?

Here are my thoughts. Sometimes we need a large collection of books at home. We might not have easy access to books or a library. I experienced that in the 70s in Pakistan, when books and public libraries were not common. In situations like that, I can understand the need to collect books at home. But for those of us who have the flexibility to read online and have access to libraries, a small collection of books to revisit regularly is all that’s needed. The rest should be passed on to someone who wants to read them.

You can read about my experience in my college library in Pakistan here.

Working in a Library

My own experiences in a library make me even more appreciative of well-run accessible facilities. A few years back, when I became the dean of a college library, I was ecstatic that my office was at the back of the library, in that quiet space where readers sit scrolling though magazines. Of course, I knew that my work would not allow me the luxury. But I still treasured the thought of being surrounded by magazines and newspapers. I also took pleasure in learning the workings of a library: how books and other resources are selected, how much time and effort it takes to process them, and how libraries are now changing as we adjust to respond to knew technologies, while holding on to the archives of the past.

Me receiving a book as a prize at school in England

In Pakistan, in the 70s, when I did not have easy access to a public library, my grandfather’s collection of books and magazines was an oasis on the farm in Faisalabad. Yes. I know, oases are in deserts, but you get my point. Despite the books being dated, they provided an interesting distraction and gave me pause to think. What I gained from them might not be relevant or accurate today, but they started me on a path that keeps me searching for more books to read. Join me in one of my childhood memories of that time.

Climbing a Mango Tree

And our days are filled with adventures of our own.  Selma and I climb our favorite mango tree, our make-believe space ship, our version of Starship Enterprise. Selma is the captain who ascends the tree with ease. She is also two years older than me. I struggle to keep my balance and choose a lower branch.  That makes me the navigator of this spaceship of a mango tree.

From the top of the tree, Selma shouts down to me.

It’s a nest.  With eggs. Blue ones with dots.

I call from below. The crowing of the mother of these eggs drowns my response. Selma is nimble.  She scrambles down and begins to run.  I jump and my shalwar catches on a branch. I stumble behind her holding my shalwar together ignoring the stinging gash on my thigh.

When I return indoors, I squeeze out a few tears to avoid being admonished for the torn clothes. Mummy wipes my injured thigh and gives me a tomato sandwich to calm me down. 

My grandfather’s library

She hands me a copy of Knowledge magazine to distract me. This twenty year old collection of magazines from my grandfather’s library is one of the many bound copies of Readers’ Digest, Popular Mechanics and other magazines from the 50s and 60s.  We read and re-read these magazines until we have memorized them.

If it doesn’t stop hurting, I think you should stay home tomorrow. Mummy will not let my pain last too long. She knows I won’t want to miss the trip to Lahore. 

What race am I?

I sit on my bed and flip through the magazine, I look at the doll-like faces drawn on the back cover of the magazine that becomes an encyclopedia. They are drawings to go with an article about race. The magazine was published in 1961.  Three categories of races are listed: “White or Caucasian, Black or Negriform, Yellow or Mongliform”.  I search for my own face in the twenty-three images that are presented.  I’m not sure which group is mine.

I sit up to look at my reflection in the window. It’s dusty, but I can make out my round face and joined eyebrows. My hair is pulled back into two ponytails, shifted slightly from my fall. I wipe the smudge from my chin. And then look admiringly at my newly pierced earlobes.

I look back at the faces in the magazine. I must be of the Indo-Iranian race.  The woman in the picture resembles my aunts.  She looks like Abidah with hair long enough to be pulled back into a braid.  And she has earrings.  I look like my aunts. All my sisters look like them too, not like mummy.

The sandwich and the magazine have worked. I feel much better.  I recover from my trauma of the gash and have also resolved my racial identity. 

Knowledge image of races
Knowledge Magazine, Circa 1961

Create Cultural Memories through Literature and Art

2 Comments »

  1. Hi, I can absolutely understand your love for books, I love books too and I love being in a library. I also have always had the need for keeping a small library at home. Of course my childhood home was always so full of books and my brother’s house, even though it’s small, is home to an extensive library. On leaving my largest home in a Manse in Wales, I had to leave many books behind. Now in our small cottage, I have to donate many books to others, but I enjoy matching the book to it’s recipient. A few books, I read twice, or more often because they are so special to me. Books are meant to be read , so I feel justified in giving away my treasured possessions.
    I like the photo of you in the school at Mortlake.
    Regards Liza

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