I remember the first time I went to the library.
Yes, I see you calling bullshit, but it’s the truth.
It was before I went to school. My mom took me with her to the public library, where she used to take out Afrikaans novels. I can’t remember what she read, but I can recall with perfect clarity the shape, smell and colours of the Dick Bruna books that I took home that day.
The librarian always smiled. His eyes crinkled up in the corners behind his glasses and he called me “juffrou” (the Afrikaans word for “young miss”). From that day, the library became my happy place. My safe place. I burrowed my way through the Afrikaans children’s books, then the English ones, followed by books for tweens, teens, and eventually I graduated to the grown-up section.
The library is where I went when my dad got into one of his moods, or when I needed somewhere quiet to hide out.
During school holidays I “worked” at the library; now I know the librarian invented jobs to keep me occupied. He made up competitions that I always won; and I’d go home with arms full of books. He even let me make Ricoffee in the adjacent municipality’s kitchen, where all the women knew me and teased me for being a book worm.
I spent my entire childhood at the library, and then I left home. In high school I only went over the weekends, and at university I was too busy reading for marks to read books from the library. Like a fledgling bird I left the nest, but it always remained a special place in my heart.
I wrote my first story in the library, which the librarian helped me enter into a competition. (I didn’t win, but I got to type on a real computer at my friend’s house, so that was neat.)
Recently, I rediscovered the library. I moved to an area called Sandringham in Johannesburg, and I felt lost and confused. One morning, I set out to find a coffee shop where I could work, but the café was too noisy and I overstayed the welcome one Flat White can buy.
Frustrated and alone, I trudged back up the road to my cottage, wondering what I was going to do. I had to write articles and study, and I still didn’t have internet. I also couldn’t go home, because the landlord was fixing something in my cottage.
Tentatively, I Googled “library near me”. That’s when I came across the Sandringham Library. I thought if I could just go and sit there, I could work offline for a while until it’s safe to go home.
As I walked through the doors, that familiar smell hit me first. You know the one; that musty, dusty, come-hither scent of old books. I felt my heart rise up in my throat; that’s what belonging feels like.
When I sat down, I realised that the library had free Wifi. I did some work and then stared at the rows and rows of books, contented to touch the spines and gawp at the familiarity of it all.
I’ve since registered to be part of the library, and I’ll pick up my membership card soon.
It’s good to be home.
About South Africa Library Week 2018:
The South Africa Library Week has begun and runs from 19 to 25 March, 2018. The theme of this year’s Library Week is “Libraries: Heart of the community” and the initiative is organised by LIASA: the Library and Information Association of South Africa.
Read more about SALW 2018:
The theme “Libraries: heart of the Community” re-emphasizes the idea that libraries belong to the community and are central to it. All libraries, whether it is a School, Public, Academic or Special library, are at the heart of their communities, to offer vital resources to address community needs, and are places where the community gathers. They are open to their own communities, and provide essential services to help people and neighborhoods thrive. From internet access and help with homework, to story-times and language programs, libraries provide free accessible space, information resources and services for everyone.
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