Going to the Library, Then and Now

Photo by Susan Yin on Unsplash

“I’m going to the library, who wants to come?” I call into the yard, jingling the car keys.

“I do! I do!” my big kids yell, racing to climb into their carseats. 

“I want to get my noodle book!” Sky says excitedly, thinking of the next Noodlehead graphic novel waiting for her on the holds shelf.

“I want anudder race car book,” Robin adds.

I smile at my children’s excitement, even though it makes me a little sad, too. Pre-pandemic, a trip to the library was much more than a quick ten-minute drive to the curbside pickup. We used to spend hours at our local branch a few times a week, chatting with friends at story time and adding books to our bag until it overflowed. Sky loved to choose a few I Can Read books and sit on a stool in the corner by the window, looking at the pictures while I chased Robin through the stacks and retrieved my holds. 

Now they don’t even get out of the car when I park in front of the library. I pull my mask on over my eyes, turning around in my seat to ask if I’ve got it on right. They laugh but tell me to hurry and get their books. At the library window, I try to say my name as clearly as I can through the fabric, and the librarian returns with our stack– the noodle book, the race car book, some books on ballet, an Eye Spy book, and Upstream and Coming Full Circle for me. I try to smile with my eyes as I thank the librarian and say goodbye.

My kids want to hold their books on the drive home, and when we get there they both hurry inside, sit on the couch, and start reading. Like so many other times in this past year of closures and absences, I find a small win to celebrate. 

Sky , age 4, in her happy spot at our local library.

They are still delighted by books. They still love the library enough to want to be in close proximity to it, even if they can’t go inside. We’ve lost the wonderful experience of wandering through the aisles and choosing whatever looks interesting that day, but we’ve gained a deeper appreciation for the books we carefully choose, place on hold, and then wait for. We check out fewer books, but we keep them longer and savor them more. It makes me happy to see that books seem to matter to my kids as much as they’ve mattered to me since I was their age.

I remember my mom taking my sister and me to the library before we could read. I remember the way it smelled– a mix of the big eucalyptus trees outside, the ocean air, and that unmistakable book smell all libraries have. There was the crinkling sound of the books in their library jackets, the light pouring through the huge windows in the fiction room where my mom browsed, and the freedom she gave us to wander wherever we wanted as she chose books for herself. I loved gathering my own stack of books for the week.

Reading has always been tied up with the thingness of books, and the place where books are, but during the long stretch of time when there was no hold service, I bought an e-reader so I could check out e-books from the library or buy them from our local booksellers. It’s made it possible for me to read more during these early months with a newborn. It’s small and light enough to hold while nursing Iris or wearing her in the sling as she naps. I can even read in the bathtub. It’s also making it easier for me to take notes as I read, because I can add digital highlights and then transfer them to a word document later. 

As a child and later as a teen and young adult, I read for hours. As a mother, I probably spend more time reading to my children, but I try to make sure they see me reading my own books, too. “Are you reading in your mind, Mama?” Sky asks me. She’s not quite reading on her own yet, and I’m excited for the day when she discovers the pleasure of reading to herself. 

Reading connects me to the world outside the borders of home and children, and the person I am in addition to “Mom.” It keeps me grounded and makes me more receptive to ideas for poems and essays. I read before I could write, and I think it’s part of what made me a writer. I know it’s made me who I am today, and I can’t wait to see what role reading plays in my children’s lives as they grow.

Libraries Foster Connection and Community Resilience: Speaking to Support Portland’s Library Bond

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Today the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to refer a library expansion bond measure to the November 2020 ballot. Along with thirteen other Portland residents, I had the pleasure of participating in a period of public comment before the referral was put to a vote. This is the three-minute statement I spent weeks writing and whittling down.

I wasn’t the only speaker who got a little choked up sharing my story of love for our library system with the very sympathetic board, all of whom seemed ready to vote “aye” even before hearing public comments. The board room was packed with people of all stripes, passionate about supporting and improving the library. One speaker’s family has had five generations use and enjoy the Belmont branch.

Our library system is one of the most-used in the nation, but ranks 102nd in square footage. Officially made a tax-supported public library in 1902, most branches were built in the early 20th century, designed to accommodate an early 20th century population we have since overwhelmingly outpaced. My family has been regularly  turned away from packed event rooms at storytime due to overcrowding, and after one of several such experiences I reached out to the Library Foundation to ask how I might get involved in efforts to fund expansion. They responded with kindness and generosity, and invited me to participate in supporting this bond measure by sharing our story.

What a thrill to participate in this local part of the democratic process. I’ve been hungry for hope and for ways to directly impact decision-making locally, and this morning fed my soul. I can’t wait to vote yes in November.


Chair Kafoury and Commissioners, I am grateful for this chance to speak to you today and ask you to put this bond before voters in November.

I’m a homeowner and the mother of two young children, ages 5 and 2. We live in Lents, one of many neighborhoods in East County experiencing rapid change, not all of it beneficial to the people who live there.

My daughter and I started going to storytime in 2015, when she was 4 months old. Once or twice a week, we walked to the Holgate Library and joined the circle of kids and parents from our neighborhood for stories and songs. Her face lit up whenever we said the word “library.” By preschool, her vocabulary wowed her teachers.

I truly believe we owe her pre-literacy skills to storytime at the library. This free program shaped her because it was easily available to us every week.

Like a good story is more than its plot, and a love of reading is about more than learning letters, storytimes are about more than songs and books. They are about consistency and connection. One of the first names my daughter learned was Juliet, the Holgate children’s librarian who knew her, in turn, by name. These early relationships and exposures matter.

But this magic formula is becoming harder to access at Portland libraries. Since my son was born in 2018, I’ve seen my family and others regularly turned away from storytime due to overcrowding.

One recent morning, after the usual chaos of spilled Cheerios and preschool drop-off, it felt like a minor miracle when my son and I made it to the event room at Holgate— only to find the door closed and a sign saying FULL. As I comforted my son, I was embarrassed to find tears in my own eyes.

But as we walked home that day, I realized I could make this about our small disappointment, or I could see the bigger picture. Over the past few years, I have felt the city changing. Like so many of my neighbors in Lents, I worry for the folks struggling to survive winter in tents and cars. Our city is stretched to capacity, and everywhere we look, we see need.

At the library, though, I see solutions. I see resources made available to people of every age, economic background, race, gender, and ability. I see those resources being heavily, gratefully used.

What if, on that recent day, I had been a first-time library user? A family new to town, curious about storytime? Would I have come back?

I want storytime for EVERYONE. And that’s just one of many library services that Portlanders want and use. The library consistently brings me and my neighbors connection and empowerment. As neighborhoods grow, our library branches need to grow, too.

Give the community a chance to invest in East County libraries like the one my neighbors and I use. Give us a chance to invest in each other.

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