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Browsing Blues

Everyone misses something or someone during the pandemic. My friends miss their grandkids. My single buddy, Dave, misses his evenings playing cribbage with his cronies at the local watering hole. My spouse misses meditating with his Buddhist sangha. I miss my library.

Specifically, I miss browsing the stacks — pulling a CD case off the shelf, studying the cover, reading the synopsis on the back, learning about the author and reader — returning the case to its place and selecting another. Like many other aspects of life during Covid, I now browse virtually. Logging in, I enter my search information. A page of miniscule book covers pops up, each in its own tiny box, its author and publishing information listed in a font size too small to read. Click on the book cover and I’m taken to a full page description of the book: synopsis, ISBN, playing time and availability. If I reject this choice, I return to the page of tiny boxes, squint some more at the screen, and repeat the process.

Once I make a choice, often more out of desperation than interest, I place the book on hold, fill in the dates between which I might pick up the book, and log off. Having engaged in this laborious process, my next move is to drive to the library where my brown-paper wrapped book will be waiting on one of several tables in the dimly lit foyer.

One particularly cold winter day I entered said foyer masked and, blinded by fogging glasses, unable to locate my name among the brown paper spines. I removed my foggy glasses, wiped them on my scarf, and squinted through the blur for my name. It wasn’t there. On another visit, I arrived at the library around 11:00 am only to discover it didn’t open until 2:00. By the time I returned to town a few days later, the book had been retrieved and returned to its place in the stacks.

I do not blame the library staff for my lack of access to the stacks. Throughout the pandemic they have worked to bring books and materials to their patrons as safely and efficiently as possible. I recognize the need to quarantine returning books and to maintain other Covid protocols, but I miss my library.

I miss the comforting smells of paper and books, the tidy rows of spines lined up shelf upon shelf. I miss the building’s mellow woodwork and creaky stairs, the ghostly whisperings of decades of past and present patrons. Perhaps this is one of the hidden benefits of the pandemic: we learn new appreciation for the ordinary activities and institutions that make up our lives.

This morning, I once more logged in to the library’s website. I chose a CD, filled out the form, and spoke to a kind and friendly staff member on the phone. She said she’d pull my book and have it in the foyer in an hour. And she did.


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