Once, a student — I’m a school librarian — wanted to find a book he had taken out the year before.

“It’s a book about how to survive in the wild,” he said. “The cover is red.”

Amazingly, I knew what he was talking about. The patron who doesn’t remember a title or author is usually a  librarian’s, um, biggest challenge.

The Dewey Decimal system exists for a reason. So does the library catalog — once consisting of cards arranged in drawers, now digital databases. Librarians create records with “access points” — title, author, keywords and subject headings — so patrons can find the materials they need.

It’s an impersonal process, but much of the other work we do is on the personal level. I remembered this young man taking out the survival book with the red cover as a middle school student because he borrowed it several times. He talked about it with me.

The library was small. I could tell you, in this moment, 10 years later, where the book stood on the shelf. My student had no problem finding it on his own back then.

Now it was a year later, and the middle school and high school libraries had been combined, in a large space, with many shelves. But when the student asked me for help, I didn’t have to throw up my hands in despair because I remembered his special interest in the survival book with the red cover.

A library is not just a collection of books. It is place where people come together and interact, and, on the best days, help each other. The movie “The Public,” which I saw recently at Railroad Square Cinema, gets that point just right.

Emilio Estevez, who stars in, wrote and directed the film, was inspired  by a newspaper article that detailed how public libraries have become de facto shelters for the homeless. The story is fictional but set in the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County (Ohio). When the temperature plunges and homeless people are dying because of a lack of space in official shelters, a group of homeless men decide to stay in the library overnight. Naturally, the powers-that-be flip out.

Watching the movie, I found myself in the same frame of mind as when I watch movies set in Boston. One slip-up on “the accent” can ruin it for me. Would “The Public” get the library world right? Sigh of relief. Yes.

Ironically, I had visited the city in December, and my friend and I stopped at the BPL to recharge our phones. We were avidly talking, so I didn’t realize for a few minutes that we appeared to be surrounded by homeless people. I deduced this because some were sleeping. One man was counting his money. Others were eating. And there was a wheeled suitcase parked under the table where I was sitting. (I did report that to security. It was probably someone’s worldly goods, but it could have contained a bomb.)

Everyone was minding their own business. They just weren’t doing library business; the library was a place to get out of the cold and to be with their friends.

School libraries at the middle and high school level provide the same perks. The cold, of course, is metaphorical. It’s, say, the cafeteria, where an adult just visiting the school can readily identify the cliques at their individual tables and note those who are sitting on the fringes, or wandering around, too uncomfortable to sit down.

The school library can be a sanctuary, where it’s OK to be alone, to be reading a book or working on a collaborative coloring project. It’s a place to find peers who also like graphic novels.

Some students are library helpers, which usually requires them to work with fellow students they don’t know. It may seem they have nothing in common with each other. But then they get to know each other. They have fun while working. Sometimes they even become good friends.

This is the magic of the library, and watching it play out is one of the best parts of my job.

As the homeless men occupy the Cincinnati library, Estevez’s character, the librarian who is advocating for them, films them. They are reading, using the computers, playing chess. This is today’s library — a place where people come together and interact, or just be themselves among others. Librarians shush only when absolutely necessary, such as when, in the movie, a naked man starts belting out “I Can See Clearly Now.”

Even when my middle and high school students come to the library to do research, they might take a minute to fit a piece into our current jigsaw puzzle, post a line on the Magnetic Poetry board or check the rack of weeded books for something interesting to bring home.

My hope is that they also take with them the knowledge that wherever they go, whatever they do, there is always a place for them in a library.


Liz Soares welcomes email at [email protected].

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