My life in libraries around the world

These places have always been the stages where my stories unfold.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
The Thomas Crane Public Library in Quincy, Mass.

I am sitting in a car in the Swedish capital of Stockholm with my baby sister and her husband of four days.

“Where do you want to go?” Edie asks.

It’s drizzling. This beautiful city, where sailboats and cruise ships plow past at what seems to be an arm’s length away, is mine for just one more day. Then I must head back to Africa. 

I hesitate. The Nobel Museum? The shops?

“Where is the library?”

If Johan is surprised, he doesn’t show it. “Not far. It’s a great place. It was designed by a famous architect,” Gunnar Asplund.

Johan stops outside a building with a chunky central tower. It is ocher red, making me think suddenly of the rich clay soil back in Zimbabwe. 

We slip inside. My first impression is of light and space. People tap away at small workstations. The books, shelf after glorious shelf of them, line the walls, like upended LEGO bricks.

Edie, my fashion-designer sister whom I see so rarely, is by my side.

“I presented one of my collections here,” she whispers. “The models came down from that middle bit, where the light is.”

She’s just given me another snippet to add to my library anthology.

For as long as I can remember, libraries have been the stages where my stories unfold. That imposing university library in England, for instance, in which I whiled away so many hours reading up on Dante, Boccaccio, and that medieval French writer I nearly dedicated my life to. 

It’s been more than a decade and a half since I flashed my library card for the last time there. I recall – how could I forget? – the hush of the reading room, the chilly rabbit warrens of “book stacks” (open-access shelves) you could lose yourself in.

But my sharpest memory is of my friend Clare and the Marmite sandwiches she and I shared on the steps of that library on Saturday mornings. As we waited for her Colombian fiancé to cycle to meet us, we batted our dreams back and forth: Should we do doctorates once we’d finished our master’s theses? Or should we stop there, turn our backs on the siren call of the university library, and step out into the “real” world?

Clare stayed on. Happily for me, the world beyond that particular library turned out to be full of libraries, too.

In Nice, southern France, where I spent a sun-splashed year teaching English, I knew and loved a dark little library far off the beaten tourist track. It stood in a housing project where youths threaded their way through the gray towers on skateboards. 

Marie, the mother of a friend, tut-tutted at their acrobatics as she made her weekly trip to the library to feed her passion for historical novels. Then, books in hand, she and I would take an elevator seven floors up to her apartment where we sipped tisane, an herbal tea, and nibbled sables, flat French cookies.

Later, living in Paris, I rode the escalators up the see-through tunnels to the library in Pompidou Centre. Sometimes after a shift distributing photocopies of page layouts in the newsroom of the now-defunct International Herald Tribune, I sat among the earnest French students leafing through books about film. 

I wasn’t quite sure where the photocopies would take me. But I believed they’d take me somewhere.

These days I hop into a taxi several times a month and head for a small, sparsely stocked library in Sakubva, a township in Mutare, in eastern Zimbabwe. 

Taxi driver Wellington fills me in on family news and asks after my father-in-law. We dip under the Coca-Cola Bridge. Fuchsia-pink bougainvillea bushes and flourishing vegetable gardens flash past the window.

The Sakubva Library and Technology Centre is next to what was until recently a school exam coaching center. I can hear the shouts from a nearby game of netball. 

Wellington and I unload the latest box of books that well- wishers – a fair proportion of them readers of this newspaper – have sent to Zimbabwe, where books are scarce and expensive.

The assistant librarian comes toward me, clapping his hands in thanks.

The Sakubva library is where stories will happen and memories will be made – for me and for many other readers.

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