Before and After the Library

feature image photo by Kilito Chan via Getty Images


I’ve used a lot of words to describe myself in the many years I’ve lived on this planet. Some were nice words, others were not. But the descriptors that have stuck with me the longest are the ones tied up in my expectations of myself. They reflect who and what I love.

Lesbian. Novelist. Librarian.

It’s that last one I want to talk about now. The library! It’s where I spent all of my twenties and most of my thirties. Working, sure, but also doing a lot more than that. I found my best friends at the library. I discovered my voice there along with a real sense of self-worth. Most notably, I penned my first novel in a library, typing furtively on lunch breaks. I’m no longer the girl who took her first job there out of sheer desperation, but I’d be lying if I didn’t acknowledge that part of that person stays wedged inside me, always. And for the sake of this story, there are two iterations of self to consider: pre-library and post-library.

These “before” and “after” versions hinge on the birth of my son. In the before, I was 18-years-old and beginning my first year of college. In the after, I was a young mother in dire need of a paycheck. Thankfully, I found employment at my local public library — a small city branch that was basically four rooms duct-taped together with stacks holding up the tiled ceiling. What did I know about libraries before I began working there? To be honest with you, not very much. I had grand notions of dusty rooms and carefully selected tomes, peace and unending quiet, some grey-haired spinster steadily shushing everyone like a balloon slowly leaking air.

I was wrong about almost all of that (there was still a good amount of dust — libraries tend to have terrible cleaning services). In my two decades of collection work, I became an integral part of the library’s intricate machinery: public, academic, and law. There was shelving and reference and weeding. InterLibrary Loan. Puppet shows and flannel boards and glitter covering the floor as well as the soles of my shoes. There was shelf reading, a seemingly never-ending task. I didn’t just work at the library; I worked with the library, my brain and body employed in tandem with other necessary library cogs. I was one of many, part of an expansive community that fought (and continues to fight) an increasingly uphill battle when it came to securing community spaces and rights for users.

Banned books bridge the pre- and post-library versions of myself.

Growing up, I wasn’t allowed regular access to books. We were Southern Baptist, strongly evangelical, which meant that unless you were cracking open a bible or something biblically adjacent, the written word was something that had to be approved before it could be viewed. I received textbooks in school — ones handed out each year in classrooms, battered things I pored over religiously — but we hardly ever went to the library, and any media center materials had to go through my parents before I could read them. We were also poor, which meant I did not have money to buy any of my own. Unlike my brother, who would have rather done a mountain of chores than be forced to read a book, I was desperate to get my hands on any. I craved the smell of them, their weight and texture. I wanted to fall inside their pages, get lost in worlds that looked vastly different than my own colorless existence. Because falling into a book meant my own world disappeared. I didn’t have to think about the things that made life harder, my queerness, my otherness. I could simply cease to exist.

Sometimes I stole books from classrooms. I can admit that now, positive my teachers have likely forgiven (and long forgotten) their theft. I snatched paperback copies of things, Matilda and The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle and Island of the Blue Dolphins. These books I snuck home, shoved beneath the dresser I shared with my little sister. Stories made me ache and cry and wonder. Libraries, inaccessible to me, but stuffed full of books — things I considered holy — became exponentially more significant than the actual biblical texts my parents wanted me to read. If church meant submission to something greater, then the library was a place where a person could be given complete autonomy and control. Freedom to learn. Freedom to grow.

So yes, it makes perfect sense that when I think about the term “banned books,” my mind immediately slinks back to my childhood. To ban is to refuse, to expressly forbid. And I’m unable to separate the way books are banned in the political sense from the way books were denied me in my childhood. After all, isn’t it the same argument? The notion that a child couldn’t possibly know their own mind well enough to make important decisions? These political parties cry “think of the children” and “moral objection.” Well, so did my parents. But this kind of pointless rhetoric never stopped me from reading. It only taught me how to hide things better. Learning how to stop hiding — my thoughts, my feelings, my identity? That took years to undo.

Libraries are repositories for books, but they’re also a place where you learn your voice is valuable and important. I was technically an adult when I gave birth, 18 and old enough to vote, but mentally I was still a child. I’d grown up very sheltered and had no resources, no skills outside of those learned in the church. I couldn’t legally drink for another three years. I wasn’t able to rent a car on my own. I had a baby, one who needed lots of time and attention, and I knew almost nothing about how to take care of him, much less how to take care of myself. That first library position — the one that paid twenty thousand dollars a year, plus stolen toilet paper and leftover food from events — saved me. It wasn’t just a job, it was access to information. Access to community. I grew up there, alongside my son, and the passing years sped by in a flurry, like a snowball tossed downhill, steadily picking up heft and momentum.

I live in Florida — have always lived here. I’m third generation, and it’s common knowledge that we currently boast the second most book bans in the United States. This information isn’t surprising to me (or to anyone else who’s lived in a state where “otherness” means difficulty existing). You get used to the people in charge telling you what you shouldn’t want. Living with a bad thing for so long can lead to apathy; the way your eyes slip unseeing over objects you’ve owned for many years. But by pressing our fingers against the bruise of these “bad things,” we’re reminded they’re still there and still affecting us. I repeatedly tell the story of my relationship to books and libraries and my family because it’s not a new one, and I shouldn’t forget how it continues to impact me. Book bans are the same today as they were yesterday. Not much has changed when it comes to people thinking they know better.

Here’s what I know for sure: Talking and listening to each other keep communities closely knit together.

Storytelling. It’s what I’m doing right now, isn’t it? And by sharing the facts about my own relationship to libraries and book banning, a reader might get an opportunity to compare my experience to their own. Possibly they’ll tell some version of it to another person. And so on, and so on. When we continue to talk about book bans, we are sharing something bigger than the ban itself. We’re telling each other an uncomfortable story that needs to be heard and reheard.

So, here’s mine. Take what you need from it. Because telling each other stories doesn’t blunt the ache of our individual pain. It allows us, instead, to share the load.


Autostraddle is honoring Banned Books Week 2023! Today is Let Freedom Read Day, the final day of Banned Books Week. For more information, visit BannedBooksWeek.org.


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Kristen Arnett

Kristen Arnett is the queer author of With Teeth: A Novel (Riverhead Books, 2021) which was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award in fiction and the New York Times bestselling debut novel Mostly Dead Things (Tin House, 2019) which was also a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award in fiction and was shortlisted for the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award. She was awarded a Shearing Fellowship at Black Mountain Institute, has held residencies at Ragdale Foundation, Vermont Studio Center, the Millay Colony, and the Key West Literary Seminar (upcoming 2024), and was longlisted for the Joyce Carol Oates Prize recognizing mid-career writers of fiction. Her work has appeared at The New York Times, TIME, The Cut, Oprah Magazine, Guernica, Buzzfeed, McSweeneys, PBS Newshour, The Guardian, Salon, The Washington Post, and elsewhere. Her next novel, CLOWN, will be published by Riverhead Books (Penguin Random House), followed by the publication of an untitled collection of short stories. She has a Masters in Library and Information Science from Florida State University and lives in Orlando, Florida. You can find her on Twitter here: @Kristen_Arnett

Kristen has written 2 articles for us.

13 Comments

  1. “We’re telling each other an uncomfortable story that needs to be heard and reheard.” Thank you for this. Especially because it can be hard to stay focused in all the static of violence and attacks on queer and trans people, on kids in particular. We have to keep repeating, and talking about and calling attention to the book bans and all that is happening. Thank you for this essay. Thank you for choosing Autostraddle as this piece’s home.

  2. Kristen, this essay has really moved me and I was feel like it’s silly to compliment your work (because of course you know! how talented you are!) — but this stuck to my bones something deep. It was the kind of writing about books that immediately made me want to spend my night curled up reading a book because books are my first love and reading other people talk about how much they love them is a gift, you know?

    Sorry that was a run-on. Like I said, I’m moved.

    Also, mountain of other gratitude aside, THANK YOU for solving a lifelong mystery I’ve had, which is remembering the title of The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, which was my favorite book in 6th grade and I book I still think of ever so often fondly, but genuinely thought was lost to me forever. So thanks for that, too!

  3. I love this essay so much and it made me miss the library that felt like it did to me as a kid and teen in the way the internet never ever could, Im pretty sure. Still nowhere on earth beats a good library. Thank you for writing this

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