Warning: navel-gazing AND trivial, all in one tidy package
I spent a fish-out-of-water hour last Friday, hanging an art exhibit. Nothing in my career made me suspect I’d ever do that – and given my complete lack of artistic ability*, you’ll be relieved to know that it’s not my art. Instead, I was hanging an exhibit of the illustrations from my book, Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider. They’re gorgeous, thanks to the expert work of science illustrator Emily Damstra, and if aren’t in Fredericton to see the exhibit, then you can come close via this post and the online exhibit it links to.
I did feel like a fish out of water, given that I was hanging an art exhibit (my first time doing that, although not my first time being a fish out of water). But in another way I felt completely at home, because I was hanging it in my local public library.
It probably won’t surprise anyone to learn that I’ve spent a lot of my life in libraries. Long before writing became an important part of who I am, reading was. (It still is.) I still remember my first public library: the Madoc Public Library, in Madoc, Ontario, where I lived from roughly age 2 to age 10. Few memories of Madoc are as clear to me as the view inside the library: the children’s books were in a room at the rear of the library, down a half-flight of steps. I remember going down those steps and thinking how amazing it was that I’d come to a room full of thousands of books, and I could take home any one I wanted to. (I remember at least two specific books I discovered in that room, and loved: Bulldozer (Stephen Meader), which in hindsight was probably dreadful; and Tucker’s Countryside (George Selden), which remains wonderful and which my son loved, 40 years later, as much as I did.)
Public libraries are such an astonishing idea – literally astonishing, I mean. Imagine that they didn’t exist, and someone on your town council stood up at a meeting and said “I have an idea. Let’s build a building, and buy ten thousand books, and let people borrow whatever ones they want. Yes, I know we already have bookstores, but we’ll spend what it takes so people can have books for free. No, not just kids’ books and educational ones – we’ll stock Tom Clancy novels and Harlequin romances and Fifty Shades of Grey**”. That councillor would surely be laughed out of the room, because if libraries didn’t already exist, we’d all think the idea was ridiculous. Thank goodness they do, because they’re magical places.
Tom Clancy novels and Harlequin romances and Fifty Shades of Grey and – at least in my local public library – Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider. Partly because of the art exhibit, I have achieved nerdvana: my public library now has a copy of my own book. It’s not the first public library to hold Charles Darwin’s Barnacle, and many – most? – university libraries have copies of The Scientist’s Guide to Writing; but it was still nothing short of electrifying to hold a copy of Charles Darwin’s Barnacle with a Dewey Decimal sticker on the spine and a bar code, in the public library I’ve haunted for the last 19 years. It’s a little weird, I guess (and a lot nerdy), but what a wonderful moment.
© Stephen Heard October 5, 2021
Images: the book, and the exhibit, at the Fredericton Public Library © Stephen Heard, CC BY 4.0
*^Someone will likely jump in here (as my mother used to) and say “Oh, everyone has artistic ability, you just haven’t tried”. It will be someone with artistic ability and a complete misunderstanding of survivorship bias, of course. I wish those people would think about what they’re saying – because what they’re saying (or at least, what I hear) is “You have ability, and therefore it’s your fault that you’re failing because you’re not trying hard enough”. I think what they mean to do is boost my self-esteem. Strange way to do that, don’t you think?
**^I bet you expected a snarky footnote about Fifty Shades of Grey, but you’re not getting it. Instead, I brought you down here to point out that libraries are even more ridiculous than that. At ours, you can borrow snowshoes, and musical instruments, and tools, and board games, and seeds. Well, OK, you don’t borrow the seeds so much as swap them; but still.