Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The St. Louis Library Is the Bomb (and I Just Wish I'd Realized It Sooner)

Posted By on Tue, Sep 13, 2016 at 6:49 AM

click to enlarge This is what happens when you let a music writer loose in the St. Louis Public Library. - PHOTO BY JAIME LEES
  • photo by Jaime Lees
  • This is what happens when you let a music writer loose in the St. Louis Public Library.


I’ve just recently realized that the St. Louis Public Library is the bomb. This is lucky for me because I’ve also recently realized that I have an issue with getting rid of old books. Most books that I let through the front door tend to stay in my house for life.

I wanted to figure out a way to stop giving books a forever home. I’ve always had minimalist tendencies, but started going deep into a decluttering adventure a few months ago. I’m always constantly cleaning out closets, trashing entire drawers, donating old clothes and, lately, digitizing my audio files, photos and important papers. But the books. The books don’t want to leave. 


So what are you supposed to do when you read a lot of books but you want to stop buying them? The only answer is to swap or borrow them. I had to learn to foster instead of adopting. And that’s where the library came in.

I loved libraries when I was a kid, but I also had issues with libraries. I hated the school library when I was an elementary student. I read far above my grade level but the librarians there wouldn’t let students borrow from the sixth grade shelves when they were only in the second grade. The books I had access to there were dull and very, very short.

Annoyed with the quality of the “baby books” offered at school, I constantly begged my mother to take me to the public library, but I’m not sure that she’s ever read a book in her life, so my visits there were less than infrequent. I’d go once and get books and then sometimes she wouldn’t take me back to return them for an entire year. When I’d return and try to get new books, I’d always have a massive fine on my late books and I’d feel red-faced and ashamed when the librarians scolded me for it. Eventually I just stopped asking to go entirely. It was too much for an introverted kid to handle.

I started liking the school library again when I was in high school because I’d skip class and go there and read full text articles on their database. I should’ve been in French class, but I’d be hiding out at the computer terminals and reading obscure old magazine articles about Kim Gordon or Echo & the Bunnymen or whatever. I eventually got busted for being in the library so much and I got detention. (Pro tip for the kids: Did you know that if you skip detention that they give you in-school suspension? And then if you skip that they give you out-of-school suspension A.K.A. vacation? Once I figured out that my punishment for skipping school eventually turned into permission to skip school, they stopped giving me detention and I got to hang out in the library all the time.)

In the years since, whenever I wanted to read a book I just bought it. Trips to Borders eventually became trips to Amazon.com, and I’d just buy them all. I’d raid the books section at thrift stores and go to Left Bank Books and hunt through the insane collection in their basement. Still, there were always lots of books that I’d always wanted to read but couldn’t find. So I just kept ordering them all of the time like a damn chump.

Though I’ve donated more books than most people will ever read in their lifetimes, there are still a stupid amount of them in my house. Eventually, I was like, “This is dumb. I need to just go to the damn library.” If I was going to keep wanting new books, this would be at least one sure-fire way to stop keeping them — they weren’t mine.

After meaning to go do it for months and months, I finally took myself to get a St. Louis Public Library card just five or six weeks ago. And holy crap, it changed my life.

Nobody ever explained to me how awesome the library could be, so I’m here to tell you just in case you were also missing this piece of critical information.

First of all, it took about three minutes to get a library card. You show them your ID and they just print you up one right there at the main library counter. I signed up with the St. Louis County Library system, but you can access books at the city libraries, too, via an interlibrary loan program. Right after they handed me the card — instantly — I could’ve checked out up to 100 books. Whoa.

And as it turns out, the library has almost everything you could want. Really. The other day I transferred my Amazon books wish list list into a library books wish list. Of the 44 books that I had on my Amazon list, 37 of them were available through the library. (And the ones that weren’t available through the library were all rare or out-of-print titles.) Figuring an average of $15 that I would’ve paid for each of those 37 books, having a library card has already saved me $555.

I’m also done with buying DVDs. I usually watched them once and then they sat in a closet forever, so I checked the catalog for a DVD that I’d recently added to my Amazon list, too. Chuck Berry’s Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll DVD goes for no less than $39.99 online and I’d almost bought it a million times because I’ve been thinking about Chuck Berry a lot lately and I haven’t watched it in at least fifteen years. But guess what? The library had it, so I got to watch it for free. ($555.00 + $39.99 = $594.99 saved.)

And that's not all. On my first exploratory trip to my main branch, I asked the librarian on duty if they had a specific book on minimalism that I’d been wanting to read for a long time but refused to buy because that seemed entirely counterproductive. She said yes, but that they didn’t have a copy at that branch, and then she asked me if I’d like her to order it for me. For free. I was like, “Uh, yes please.” It was there the next day — even faster than Amazon. O.M.G.

These librarians just do stuff for you and you don’t even have to pay them! She knew that it was my first day there and she told me that in the future I could also just easily search and request my own books on the app. What.

And, yes, there is an app. You can look up what you want and find out where it’s available or when it’s due back. You can also search on the app and download digital media. Now whenever I think of a book that I want to read, I just go to the app and search it to see if it’s in the system. If it is, I look at which branch has a copy. If it’s not a branch that I frequent, I’ll request the book right there on my phone. Then they email you a couple of days later when the book is there and ready for pick-up. The whole process couldn’t be easier.

They also even offer a free Netflix-like streaming service called Hoopla. Hoopla offers movies, music, television shows and audiobooks for instant streaming. It’s like having a Netflix account for free through the library. No joke.

And here's something else I learned: In addition to being able to borrow from any branch, you can also return to any branch. Say I finish one of the many Oliver Sacks books that I borrowed from Branch A. Despite the fact that I borrowed it from Branch A, I can return it to Branch B. It's also worth it to take a peek a their events calendars, as different branches offer different meetings, lectures and classes. (Colson Whitehead? He's coming to the county headquarters this Wednesday.)

So, yeah. I'm head over heels. And even if you're constitutionally unlikely to join me in fan-girling out over an institution like a library, you can't argue with its merits. In fact, I guarantee, a
fter your first library visit, you’ll walk out feeling like you robbed the place. It’s really almost too good to be true.

Wait, did someone say there are late fees? Nothing in life is perfect. But the St. Louis library system comes pretty damn close.

The Natural Bridge branch of the St. Louis County library re-opens this week, following a massive upgrade via the Your Library Renewed program. 

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