A few weekends ago my friend Lesia and I hung out at a place in downtown Portland where you can borrow up to 150 books at a time, for free.
It’s a 101 year-old building on the corner of 10th and Yamhill, and walking into it feels a bit like going back in time.
Lesia brought her camera.
The sense of time travel isn’t just because the Multnomah County Central Library was built in 1913, but because…it’s a library.
The kind of place I used to go before something called the internet took over.
I’ve thought a lot over the last few years about the downside of the digital era, about the trend of advertising your location or current emotion or accomplishments on social media, about travellers connecting to WiFi while sitting on the beaches of Gili Trawangan, Indonesia, staring at their screens as the surf rolls in. About the compulsion to check your inbox multiple times a day.
I do or have done all these things, revelling in the great gift of the internet while simultaneously reminiscing about life before it.
I miss the mystery we used to feel in just wondering about something, like the distance between planets or the speed of a hummingbird’s wings, or what the name of that town was in the Kootenays where you stopped for the night in 2008, on the drive from Edmonton to Vancouver.
People are so quick to pull their phones out, mid conversation, to look up the facts of a topic that could have floated among us a little longer, a day, maybe, or a week, without being disrupted by a device.
The other day I bought a potted hydrangea at Trader Joe’s, and the woman in the line ahead of me commented on how beautiful it was, how much she loved hydrangeas. I told her it was for my patio, and asked if she knew how best to care for it.
The man checking our groceries jumped in with “Google.” Joe and I laughed, but the moment stayed with me—how I had enjoyed asking for information from a stranger, who seemed to love plants as much as I do. How quick we are to turn to a search engine for answers.
Lately I’ve been feeling like so much of what I do involves the computer, from my magazine work for Fine Lifestyles and marketing projects for clients (mostly done virtually with teams across central Canada) to keeping in touch with friends and family through skype and emails. As you know from my last blog, furnishing our apartment is happening mostly through craigslist. A few things on my to-do list over the next couple days are online research of the Galapagos Islands for an article, writing a dining guide for 19 Regina restaurants, combing through accommodation options on Airbnb for an upcoming trip, and learning about our new Oregon health insurance on the Moda website.
Obviously these are all great things—I want to keep connected with friends, I want to write for magazines, I want to find a dresser for our bedroom and chairs for our patio, I want to know exactly how much I need to pay to see a doctor in Oregon. And I’m lucky to have the online resources to do all of this.
It’s just a a hell of a lot of time on my laptop. My neck and shoulders are paying for it, despite walks and stretches and yoga classes. My mind is paying for it, too. I’m more easily distracted than I used to be, taking longer to settle in to the rhythm that a long bout of writing requires. I know I’m not the only one who feels the effects of web reliance: March 7-8th marked the 5th annual National Day of Unplugging, a movement dedicated to taking digital detoxes.
To be honest, an excess of computer time is part of the reason I haven’t been posting as many blogs lately. Sharing glimpses of my life, things I find inspiring, and interviews with various creative people are some of my favourite kinds of writing to do, but putting it all together is another screen activity. I’ve been feeling a bit challenged to find the right balance between my writing work and my writing hobby, both of which demand being online.
All this is to say it was a real pleasure to visit Portland’s library, to stand among the stillness of books.
The library reminds me of the past. Of days free of signing in, checking messages, searching sites, and downloading attachments.
And yet it shouldn’t be a symbol of the past, should it? What if it was a more prominent part of our present?
Most people I know love reading books now as much as they did pre-internet era. And yet I don’t often hear of anyone (who isn’t in university) borrowing them from the library. Powell’s Books, Portland’s famous bookstore, is almost always packed, buzzing with the excitement of new, old, and rare titles, visiting authors, and book signings. And while the library certainly had people cruising in and out, browsing aisles and using the computers the two times I’ve been in now, in comparison to the crowds of Powell’s, it’s idle.
Joe got his haircut on the weekend and told his hairdresser about our trip to the library that morning. She said what I imagine a lot of people think (including myself, until a few weeks ago): “I’ve been meaning to get a library card!”
I don’t know the policies of other libraries, but Portland’s allows you to renew the books you borrow up to 49 times. And as I said at the top, you can borrow up to 150 books at a time! We could all be filling our homes with borrowed books, supporting the library, saving money, and reading ’til our brains burst, in a good way.
Budget cuts in the last few years have impacted libraries across the U.S., with hours shortening and branches closing. The Huffington Post has a series dedicated to the issue, called Libraries in Crisis. I think we’re a long way from libraries becoming obsolete, but the fact that they are in trouble concerns me. It’s a place I envision taking my future child to, imparting my love of books to them, encouraging them to learn and explore through resources other than the internet. It’s a place that people who can’t afford to buy books rely on.
Lesia’s been visiting Portland’s library for the last couple years.
In her words:
“I love the library; it’s one of my favorite places to explore. We live in a country that has given us the freedom to seek knowledge and explore the worlds of the written word. We must take advantage of public libraries before they cease to exist!”
On my last visit, I took out The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp and a stack of coffee table books with names like Caribbean Hideaways and Sudan: The Land and the People. I’m looking forward to taking extra breaks from my laptop and flipping through their pages, exploring new places and ideas, sans google.
Thank you to Lesia for her beautiful photos and for suggesting the library as our first ‘Portland Minute’ collaboration.
We’ve got more city adventures and posts to come :)
You can check out Lesia’s photography on her site: Lesia Lichonczak
Thanks for reading, everyone. Let me know if the call of the library finds you.