For 3 years, it ran in the Greeley Tribune. Since then, it has run in various subsidiaries of the Douglas County News Press. I still have most of my columns in digital format.
For many years, I only gave myself one rule: try to work the word "library" into every piece. My intent was to think in public about just what librarianship means at the end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st.
There have been many advantages for me. I found that putting library plans out in front of the public, and getting feedback about them, helped me make better decisions. Sometimes, I found that it was very difficult for me to describe those plans or policies -- the kind of thing that makes me realize that they might not be good ideas after all. The weekly discipline of explaining my profession to the public keeps me more mindful, more honest. It also has provided steady visibility for the library and its issues.
April 15, 2010 - the Taipei Public Library
This week's column is by my daughter, Madeleine LaRue, currently teaching English in Taipei City, Taiwan. She is the child of two librarians, and as you can see, this has left its mark.
The Taipei public library, by Madeleine LaRue
About a year and a half ago I read an essay by George Orwell called “Books vs. Cigarettes,” in which he defends of his habit of buying books by systematically proving that it is not, in fact, as expensive as other hobbies, such as smoking. I don’t smoke, and thank God, because I, like Orwell, already spend the majority of my paycheck on books. Since moving to Taiwan this has become problematic: all English-language books here are imported, and therefore astronomically expensive.
After a month or so in the country — by which time I had finished the books I’d brought with me from home and determined that the books at school, full of sentences like “Biff cannot open the door. She is angry!” would not quite satisfy my intellectual appetite — I began to worry. And then, luckily, blissfully, and with the help of a friend of mine, I discovered the Taipei Public Library.
The library has eleven floors and five or six elevators, none of which actually go anywhere. The foreign language collection is housed on the fourth floor — an ironic fact, since in Chinese culture the number four (and by extension the fourth floor) is unlucky. The collection consists mainly of English books, though occasionally a French, German, or Russian volume will crop up.
Like the libraries in the stories of Borges, the Taipei central branch has its own order of things, which is utterly incomprehensible to mortals. There are mysterious and delightful labels in the non-fiction section such as “Institutions Governing the Relation of the Sexes” (which turns out to contain books on wedding planning and marriage counseling) and “Breakfast Foods and Animal Husbandry.”
The section labeled “American Literature” is the largest, made up of British authors and Danielle Steele. Alphabetical order is nonexistent; the Dewey Decimal System is unheard of; books are classified according to the order in which your eyes find them. For this reason you cannot browse with intention; you can only wander and wait to stumble across an unobtrusive treasure.
The first thing I found was "The Complete Poems of Cavafy," which I have since renewed twice and will probably refuse to give back at all; the second was "Mrs Dalloway," which both prompted and resolved an existential crisis in me. The library’s collection of translated Chinese, Japanese, and Korean classical literature is impressive, and I have my eye on some Japanese fairy tales, including the very poetically-titled "Story of the Old Man Who Made Withered Trees to Flower."
In order to avoid the spurious elevators, I take the stairs between the first and fourth floors. One wall of the stairwell is glass, and looks out on to Taipei’s vast central green space, Daan Park. Another wall is decorated with posters, which are in Chinese except for the cheery yellow order, “Have a question? ASK A LIBRARIAN!” In the stairwell I often encounter other foreigners. We rarely speak, but we often exchange little embarrassed nods and guilty smiles. We are here ostensibly for the same reason — to indulge our addiction for books while ensuring that our paychecks remain firmly in our bank accounts.
And that’s what I’d tell everyone, Orwell included, but the truth is: I love the Taipei library for reasons that have nothing to do with money. I love it for its randomness and its good intentions, for its eager offering of calculus textbooks and outdated travel guides, and for its unintentional arrangement of itself into a microcosm of my experience in Taiwan. In the library, familiar things seem slightly foreign and surprising; yet at the same time, that foreignness suddenly reminds me incontestably of home.