In the spirit of John Green’s book of the same title, our theme for the month of October is “the Anthropocene reviewed.” Writers were asked to review and rate some facet of human experience on a five-star scale.

The earliest libraries date back to 2600 B.C.E., which is the point at which scholars separate prehistory from history. According to Wikipedia, these libraries stored clay tablets written in cuneiform script. Wikipedia is clear on how the clay tablets were created (spread on a frame and baked in the sun or kilns) and stored (standing up with the title on the outward facing side), but it is less clear on what the atmospheres of the libraries were like. They may have had windows so visitors could read by the light of the sun. Perhaps they were quiet places, as our public libraries are, though likely lacking the stereotypical shushing, horn-rimmed-glasses-wearing librarian.

Libraries are the first public institutions I learned to love. Growing up, Saturday mornings consisted of trips to the local library, where my siblings and I would spend time playing with the toys on the walls of the kids section and of course choosing a few books to check out, likely focused on Bionicles or Greek mythology. I now recognize the most basic service libraries provide is existing as public spaces with no obligatory transactions. They provide an alternative to a cafe or book store, where patrons can sit for hours and work, read, meet with others, or just watch the world pass by without worrying about the cost.

Part of the charm of a library is that they can occupy any space. Some libraries are hulking brutalist fortresses, others have the zany floor plans—corners tucked away and modern walls of windows. Often they reflect the communities they serve. I came to this realization after telling a librarian friend about my visit to a library in a suburb I don’t travel to often. “The building looks so cool from the outside,” I remarked, “but the first time I visited I was disappointed to find most of the building’s footprint was taken up by a courtyard. The amount of light let in by the windows is great and the space is pretty, but the selection of materials is limited. From the outside it looks nice, but once you get inside you find it’s rather empty.”

“Yeah,” he replied, “Kinda like the suburb.”

I am reasonably convinced librarians are the closest thing that exists to wizards. In a world where Google is at everyone’s fingertips, if I can’t easily find information, it’s easy to give up. Librarians know other ways of finding information. They educate patrons on what questions to ask, how to ask them, and where to look. My own library use consists of placing holds, and running in to return any items I’m done with, but on a recent visit I sat and read in a chair near the front desk. In the half hour I sat there, the librarian at the counter fielded three very different questions from three patrons of varying ages and answered them all cheerfully. The one she didn’t know the answer to, she treated as an opportunity for learning and problem solving.

I am astounded by the number of services and programming my local library provides. Beyond the books, music, movies, and video games for check out, libraries supply voter and tax guides. My home branch still provides masks and lists of resources for those affected by or infected with COVID. They host a pop-up artist market in the spring and many other classes and programs throughout the year. All this they do for no additional cost to the patron, and everyone is welcome to engage with libraries at their leisure. They wait for you to come to them.

I give libraries five stars.

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