Brain Pickings Icon
Brain Pickings

If Librarians Were Honest

“If librarians were honest, they would say, No one spends time here without being changed…”

My mother was trained in library science, but went on to have a career in software systems. Perhaps it was this epigenetic guilt that planted the unconscious seed for Brain Pickings — my personal digital archive of reading — which was born, twenty-one years after my mother completed the degree she would never use, in the city where Benjamin Franklin founded the world’s first subscription library. As library-lover Steve Jobs memorably remarked, “you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards,” and these formative dots have since been connected to paint a clear picture of my deep love of libraries — those most democratic cultural temples of wisdom where we come to commune with humanity’s most luminous minds; where the rewards are innumerable and destiny-changing, and the only price of admission is willingness. Between the walls of the library are the building blocks of the most powerful technology of thought there is.

That’s what Laura Damon-Moore and Erinn Batykefer, cofounders of the The Library as Incubator project, celebrate in The Artist’s Library: A Field Guide (public library) — an imaginative and practical collection of artists’ stories and ideas for how to use the library as a sandbox for creativity, a productivity-booster for your work, and a source of immense nourishment for the life of the mind. What emerges is an invaluable tool for any artist, by the wonderfully loose definition of “a person who learns and uses creative tools and techniques to make new things.”

Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton from ‘Meanwhile in San Francisco.’ Click image for more.

The practical tips and exercises are interspersed with various meditations by artists, the most delightful of which is a poem by Joseph Mills — a nomadic poet who gets a library card every time he moves in order to root himself in each new city.

Befittingly, in the context of free libraries, the poem begins with Benjamin Franklin’s colorful complaint as an epigraph of sorts:


“…a book indeed sometimes debauched me from my work…”
–Benjamin Franklin

If librarians were honest,
they wouldn’t smile, or act
welcoming. They would say,
You need to be careful. Here
be monsters. They would say,
These rooms house heathens
and heretics, murderers and
maniacs, the deluded, desperate,
and dissolute.
They would say,
These books contain knowledge
of death, desire, and decay,
betrayal, blood, and more blood;
each is a Pandora’s box, so why
would you want to open one.

They would post danger
signs warning that contact
might result in mood swings,
severe changes in vision,
and mind-altering effects.
If librarians were honest
they would admit the stacks
can be more seductive and
shocking than porn. After all,
once you’ve seen a few
breasts, vaginas, and penises,
more is simply more,
a comforting banality,
but the shelves of a library
contain sensational novelties,
a scandalous, permissive mingling
of Malcolm X, Marx, Melville,
Merwin, Millay, Milton, Morrison,
and anyone can check them out,
taking them home or to some corner
where they can be debauched
and impregnated with ideas.
If librarians were honest,
they would say, No one
spends time here without being
changed. Maybe you should
go home. While you still can.

Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton from ‘Meanwhile in San Francisco.’ Click image for more.

Mills tells Batykeffer and Damon-Moore:

Lending libraries are beautiful in their basic ideals. In enabling people to educate themselves they are the most empowering and humanistic of institutions.

Forty years after getting my own first card (at the Shawnee Public Library in Fort Wayne, Indiana), I still feel a sense of amazement at having access to so many materials. In a very real way, libraries have shaped who I am.

The Artist’s Library: A Field Guide is an immeasurable delight in its entirety. Complement it with a photographic love letter to public libraries, Thoreau on his ideal sanctuary for books, and these marvelous vintage ads for libraries.

Published August 7, 2015




Filed Under

View Full Site

Brain Pickings participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to Amazon. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book on Amazon from a link on here, I get a small percentage of its price. That helps support Brain Pickings by offsetting a fraction of what it takes to maintain the site, and is very much appreciated