Libraries are friendly places.
You can hang out in one all day if you feel like it; no purchase necessary. You can read magazines in a study carrel for hours on end, and not one person will suggest you need to get something, such as a job or a life or lost. Librarians are among the most helpful, knowledgeable people on earth. (Librarians who also are zoo docents should be canonized.)
Yet my library visits often end with an urge to walk to the parking lot and lean my forehead against the side of my car.
For one thing, I visit the library a lot. Yes, I know I just finished saying libraries are welcoming places, but a person can know this and still feel conspicuous about being seen crawling around the children's department three times a week.
I was doing just that a while back when a librarian I know came up behind me. "Here again?" she said cheerfully. She meant nothing except "here you are -- again," but I blushed as if the question had been asked in the booking room of the police station.
"I know," I stammered, "but I needed some books."
To the librarian's credit, she refrained from sarcasm -- "And I thought you needed spark plugs" -- and from pointing out the library doesn't expect regular patrons to defend themselves or apologize. She merely smiled and went back to her desk while I crawled away.
You might assume I was on all fours because I was poorly brought up, but in fact, children's departments have low bookshelves so their target patrons can reach the titles. Adults looking for picture books can bend over, twist their necks and shuffle sideways, but that's hard on the spine and makes observers think about Quasimodo. Instead, I get right down on the floor and hitch along, bringing my book bag, purse and car keys with me, like a rescue dog carrying supplies.
Here's another confession: I library-shop. I spread my library visits among three or four different buildings, the better to conceal my raging picture-book habit. Yes, I have a monkey on my back and the monkey has a backpack on his back, and it's full of books by Vera Rosenberry, Miriam Cohen and Kevin Henkes and, in a side pocket, a bunch of library cards. I was proud of my library habit, until having all those library cards led to another awkward moment.
I've mentioned before my library peccadillos. I've dropped my own books in the return bin, given to my neighborhood library books my daughter borrowed from hers and tried to renew items I'd borrowed mere hours before. (Fun fact: The library won't allow a person to do this. A book must be in a person's possession for more than a few minutes before it can be renewed.)
Now I've returned an already-overdue book to the wrong library, rendering it even more overdue and turning me into an interlibrary laughingstock. Next thing you know I'll be a lighthearted brief in the On Deadline section of USA Today.
I realize this in itself isn't an uncommon mistake. People return books to the wrong library so often libraries bought vans to deal with the problem. I'm guessing they let books collect until the pile is a fire hazard. Then somebody loads up the books and drives around the Outerbelt, delivering each one to its proper place.
So I don't feel silly about putting a book in the wrong bin. What I do feel silly about is having to tell that nice young man behind the desk that I gave "Edwina, the Dinosaur Who Didn't Know She Was Extinct" to another library.
"I got it for my grandchildren," I almost said, having decided against claiming I borrowed the book because Proust wasn't available.
And did that young man roll his eyes? Did he repeat after me -- "Edwina? The dinosaur? Who didn't know? She was extinct?" Did he ask aloud why he was born?
He did not. He courteously explained that the other library was way ahead of me: It had renewed Edwina on my behalf, and would return her before she was overdue again.
See, isn't that friendly? Isn't that neighborly? I'd write him a thank-you note, but I'd probably drop it in the wrong box.
Write to Margo Bartlett at firstname.lastname@example.org.