As a reference librarian at a suburban public library, I sit at the information desk, waiting to answer patrons’ many different questions. On Friday evenings, the foot traffic slows and a soothing silence descends on my area. Save the soft clattering of the keyboards in the computer lab, it is mercifully quiet. It’s in these moments I realize: I’m in a holy place.
As civil institutions funded mostly by taxes from the people they serve, public libraries are strictly secular. Patrons can use their space and resources for whatever cause, without regard for politics, religion, race or any other category. But, as we know, there’s no such thing as secular. Writing for Think Christian last year, Caryn Rivadeneira made a similar point about the beauty of art museums:
Perhaps it had something to do with the grandeur of the space. Certainly it had something to do with being surrounded by centuries’ worth of wondrous examples of image-bearing creativity. Definitively it had to do with being drawn into works that speak a mystical language, that communicate through brush-strokes or film or clay and yet speak from the artist’s heart to the viewer’s.
When I look around the library on quiet Friday nights, I see the place itself as holy. I see a cathedral of books, each one comprising a distinct identity and yet functioning as one small part of the larger body. I became much more aware of the library as a place after reading Robert Dawson’s The Public Library: An American Commons, a photographic essay documenting public library buildings all over America. The libraries in Dawson’s photographs range from a one-room wooden structure built by former slaves in California to the imposing, Romanesque Revival-style Carnegie Library in Pennsylvania to the sleek, futuristic Central Library in Seattle. Whether old or new, deserted or bustling, each of these buildings, like the books they contain, tells a unique story.
Considering the uncertain state of public libraries today, I can’t help but see their challenges running parallel with those of the American church. Both institutions, rooted in history but now confronted with modernity, are struggling to navigate the tenuous space between orthodoxy and innovation. They hear the same critical buzzwords thrown at them: outdated, unnecessary, old-fashioned, dull. They are debating internally how to attract young people and the unconverted, how to revitalize their diminishing influence amidst cultural and digital revolutions and how to make their missions feel essential in a world abounding with choices.
Both libraries and the church are struggling to navigate the tenuous space between orthodoxy and innovation.
But above all, I see them both as sanctuaries - havens for world-weary patrons and all their baggage. I’m sure a pastor could sympathize with the variety of interpersonal issues public librarians navigate gracefully every day. I’ve had people approach me looking for books about divorce, STDs, Alcoholics Anonymous, and for ways to track down someone who wronged them. But I’ve also retrieved books on weddings, suggested new reads to eager patrons and even helped a woman find an image of, in her words, a “whimsical walrus.” Many people, some with mental disabilities, simply want to talk. This often requires an abundance of patience; when there are a dozen other things you could be doing, choosing to serve a patron in need suddenly becomes the most challenging one. But extending grace on the frontlines of humanity, whether in the pews or in the stacks, is a challenge worth taking.
As a librarian and a believer, I see the struggles of libraries and churches up close. I also see their beauty - as institutions attempting to serve the greater good; as places of study, searching and refuge; and as living archives of our shared cultural experiences. These places can transform us if we let them. All we have to do is walk through their doors and take a look around.