Libraries & Imagination

librarycardI just got a new library card. It’s emblazoned with the word “Imagination.” While that would be boring news to most, to people who value reading, it’s noteworthy. Some might wonder, why did he wait until he was nearly sixty to get a library card. That’s because there is more to the story.

I happen to live “across the water” from one of the most literacy-loving communities in the United States—Seattle. (“Across the water” means that the quickest way to get to Seattle is by taking one of our scenic, but outrageously expensive, ferries, across Puget Sound.)

Our relatively small county has superb libraries of our own, but they can’t hope to match the holdings of Seattle’s grandiose institutions. Personally, I am not enticed by the sheer volume of volumes available there. I desire access to their abundant research resources, most notably access to historic newspapers.

The great news is that Kitsap County, where I am blessed to reside, maintains reciprocal library privileges with Seattle! When I made a trip to the metropolis to enroll, not only did they expeditiously process my information, the library pulled open a drawer with a dozen colorful options and said, “which card would you like?” (Now, I see how sheltered a life I live; I didn’t know some libraries actually offered members a choice of what image they want to embellish their cards.)

I selected the one bearing the iconic image of the Space Needle. (I actually visited the Space Needle during the World’s Fair . . . but that’s a story for another day.)

Only after I selected it because of the picture, did I realize each card carried the imprint of a single word. “Imagination,” the librarian said, “a good choice.” A very good choice, I thought to myself. Since I place an extremely high value on that ephemeral trait.

Libraries, I’m afraid, are undervalued today. It’s good to see them continuing to provide a valuable service to our communities. Reading is vital to civilization, growth and culture.

C.S. Lewis enjoyed the family library in the home of his youth, and in one of his boarding schools experienced the library not only as a vestibule of knowledge, but also as a place of refuge. The upper classmen of the school subjected the younger boys to relentless hazing, but the library was off limits to their abusive behaviors.*

The other undisguised blessing of the Coll [Wyvern College] was “the Gurney,” the school library; not only because it was a library, but because it was sanctuary. As the Negro used to become free on touching English soil, so the meanest boy was “un-faggable” once he was inside the Gurney.

It was not, of course, easy to get there. In the winter terms if you were not on the list for “Clubs” you had to go out for a run. In summer you could reach sanctuary of an afternoon only under favorable conditions. You might be put down for Clubs, and that excluded you. Or there might be either a House match or a Coll match which you were compelled to watch. Thirdly, and most probably, on your way to the Gurney you might be caught and fagged for the whole afternoon.

But sometimes one succeeded in running the gauntlet of all these dangers; and then— the books, silence, leisure, the distant sound of bat and ball (“Oh the brave music of a distant drum”), bees buzzing at the open windows, and freedom. In the Gurney I found Corpus Poeticum Bo reale and tried, vainly but happily, to hammer out the originals from the translation at the bottom of the page. There too I found Milton, and Yeats, and a book on Celtic mythology, which soon became, if not a rival, yet a humble companion, to Norse. (Surprised by Joy).

While this passage described the library as a glorious sanctuary, it also reveals a tragic snapshot of the bullying that is endemic to many schools. Since I don’t wish to end these thoughts on a negative image, allow me to offer another revelation from Lewis. In a brief essay, he praises imagination, while acknowledging its limitations.

It must not be supposed that I am in any sense putting forward the imagination as the organ of truth. We are not talking of truth, but of meaning: meaning which is the antecedent condition both of truth and falsehood, whose antithesis is not error but nonsense.

I am a rationalist. For me, reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning. Imagination, producing new metaphors or revivifying old, is not the cause of truth, but its condition. It is, I confess, undeniable that such a view indirectly implies a kind of truth or rightness in the imagination itself. (“Bluspels and Flalansferes: A Semantic Nightmare”).

“Producing new metaphors or revivifying old . . .” What an apt description of the wonders of imagination. And this insight is only one of the countless gems of wisdom I have gratefully received from C.S. Lewis.


* In the language of the school the “Bloods” were the sadistic elites. The youngest and most vulnerable were labeled “fags,” and their mistreatment (forced menial drudgery) was called “fagging.”

Those interested in seeing all five of the Seattle Library options for their new cards, you can do so here.

15 thoughts on “Libraries & Imagination

  1. carlymcc

    I am thrilled to see you spotlighting libraries. I, too, believe they are sadly undervalued in today’s society. As one who found refuge and sanctuary in the public libraries of my youth, I find it sad today that when i visit the library on campus, most of the students are hooked up to computers or headphones instead of cradling books. Thank you for spreading the seed that libraries can be magical places!

    1. It is amazing how many people prefer their reading via digital media. I love the convenience of cutting and pasting quotations when I’m writing research papers. Well, even blog posts, for that matter. My Lewis library is pretty comprehensive, and now I’m adding kindle copies of many of the titles since they are so easy to search.

      1. carlymcc

        I do love my Kindle, I admit! However, nothing could ever replace the feeling of an actual book in my hands. Everyone should experience that.

    2. Concur. I suppose I’ll have to turn in my anti-statist card somewhere or other (no one will admit to having the job), but the public lending library system is one of the finest — perhaps the finest — thing the state does, which is a testament to the quality and commitment of the people doing the actual work.

      1. One reason libraries are so pleasant is that most of the employees love their workplace environment. Comparing that to the Department of Motor Vehicles… well, what more needs to be said?

  2. Libraries are thresholds to new worlds – I love the old ones with nooks and crannies and carved wooden detail and broad window sills. I love the new ones with soaring windows, colorful glass art, and couches and coffee. Just magic places.
    Imagination – great choice! Do you remember the Miracle on 42nd Street movies where the talk about “the French nation and that nation and then visiting the Imagine Nation….the little girl practices being a monkey to fit in with the other kids?
    WIsh every child would be introduced to libraries as soon as they could walk and learn the path there by memory and dreams.
    Didn’t Seattle redo or build some really nice libraries fairly recently?

    1. I didn’t recall that line from the movie. Delightful.

      Yes, they built a huge downtown library in a modernist style. I’m sure that’s the image on one of the card options.

      Yes, it’s a shame that some families never take their children to libraries. What a sad loss… and a tragedy that passes from generation to generation.

  3. As a librarian, this makes me very happy. Too many people just don’t realize the resources they have readily available. And all for free (or very nearly)!

    1. Speaking of free… each year I end up borrowing a couple of books through interlibrary loans, and I’m always amazed my library provides that service without even charging me for the postage! Thanks for your service as a librarian!

  4. For two years, our young family lived 100 yards/meters from a small town library. We always walked over at least twice a week. We all miss it.
    Right now, our church meets right next to a lovely library. The only problem is, we almost always have to eat just before/after service, so it’s not often we can just drop in. My husband does take advantage of their great DVD collection often. I especially enjoy the non-fiction travel logs and history.
    My uncle and aunt used to live on Bainbridge Island. I have fond memories of the ferry ride. Especially being at the very front with the seagulls!
    Library as safe house: Love it. In a way, that’s what I try to do with my online presence. What a lovely picture. :)

    1. Bainbridge Island is part of Kitsap County. Yes, visiting libraries can become a very restful and rewarding routine. I appreciate your blog and have sensed your intention that it be a place of safety and encouragement!

  5. Pingback: C.S. Lewis, Yeats and an Intermediary « Mere Inkling

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