Incident at the Library

Photo by Chuttersnap courtesy of

I still go to the library regularly. Books appear like magic on my front porch practically every day but there is something — a few things actually — about a library that you can’t beat. My favorite is a metropolitan branch office located in a shopping center a few miles from my home. It’s the type of library — location-wise, anyway — that I patronized as a wee lad and it will no doubt be the kind that I will be walking into when the engine known as “Joe H.’s circulatory system” decides to call a wildcat strike. Yes, the interiors of libraries and the services they provide, moving far beyond books, have changed from sixty years ago and will continue to change. Joltin’ Joe Moore wrote a blog about those modifications almost seven years ago (which you can find here) and it is still on point. There is something, however, that speaks to me about this library, whose exterior is so similar to the one I visited two or three times a week as a child.

I was in that library this past Sunday and was reminded in an up-close and personal way of the reason that we still need libraries. I usually go there just to pick up books I’ve reserved, and this visit was initially no exception to that rule. I got a few graphic novels, consisting of some collections of Ed Brubaker’s and Sean Phillips’ Criminal anthology series and the first two volumes of Brian Azzarello’s and Eduardo Risso’s 100 Bullets. I  also knew that the branch had a copy of Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance (which has been on my “must-read” list for three years) so I picked that up as well. It took me a second to find the non-fiction section amidst the CDs, DVDs, reserves, audiobooks, and magazines, but find it I did. Seeing the books with the Dewey Decimal System numbers on the spine was like greeting an old friend. I in due course found Hillbilly Elegy right where it belonged (“305.562 VAN”). I was about to go to the self-serve checkout kiosk when I noticed a book displayed on the shelf where I found Hillbilly Elegy. The book — Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell (“302 GLA”)— looked interesting, so I checked that out as well, thanks to a librarian who liked the book enough to put it on display so that would stand out. 

Digital editions of books are becoming more popular, This has caused a bit of a dispute between publishers and libraries which you can read about here).  The market for physical books may be decreasing but it hasn’t collapsed. I like physical books — there is something about the tactile experience with a book that can’t be beat — but I have come to prefer eBooks for two reasons. One is that I can adjust the font and its size. The other is the “search” feature. If a novel has more than a couple of characters I often forget by page 135 who was doing what on page 40. One can obtain either format, regardless of preference, of many titles at or through the library. Take the aforementioned Hillbilly Elegy. There was a waiting list — a long one — for digital copies (author Vance is an occasional resident of the Columbus area) but a physical copy was readily available. And yes, many of you like audiobooks, which are available at and through the library as well. I am amazed at the width, breadth, and depth of audiobooks which are available digitally and physically through and at the library.

One last story. While I was browsing an announcement was made that the library was closing soon and that anyone who needed a ride home should contact the front desk. After I checked the books out at the kiosk I walked to the front counter, and asked the three women sitting behind it, “Who do I see about that ride home?” They all laughed, and one said, “Wellll…Uber, Lyft, Yellow Cab…” Everyone laughed again, and then the quick-witted librarian happened to look at the books which had been checked out by the half-witted patron. “Oh! I’m glad you got that,” she said, pointing to the copy of Outliers I had checked out. “I put that up weeks ago!” So there you go. You don’t get that type of human interaction on Amazon.


That brings us to you. Joe M., at the conclusion of his long-ago post, asked when your last visit to the library was. What I want to ask is when was the last time you recommended the library to someone. I did it two weeks ago. And when was the last time you visited the library and came away with something that you didn’t go looking for? Bedbugs don’t count.  But you do. Thanks for being here today.                


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About Joe Hartlaub

Joe Hartlaub is an attorney, author, actor and book and music reviewer. Joe is a Fox News contributor on book publishing industry and publishing law and has participated on several panels dealing with book, film, and music business law. He lives with his family in Westerville, Ohio.

30 thoughts on “Incident at the Library

  1. Great post, Sir (as is typical) ~a good start to my Saturday.

    The library system in Atlanta/Fulton County sounds like yours~ I reserve whatever’s on my must read (or listen to), and it shows up from any number of branches, usually in a week or so, and I can renew online as well as return to whatever branch I happen to pass by.

    I’ve had a card with them since… way back (my hair was darker and covered more of my head), and now that I think of it, I’ve always had a library card (it served as proof of citizenship on return from a family vacation to Canada before I had a driver’s license).

    One last thing~ when I was a kid, they built a new, “modern” library to move from the rented space at the shady (as in tree canopy) Coral Gables Women’s Club, and the smells of fresh construction still remind me of that library and those “sunny boyhood days (daze?)” – and every library has a similar scent~ from the both Gables libraries to Newnan’s Carnegie to all those in-and-around the ATL – all that paper and ink and paste and…

    Look for you in FIC HART…

    • Thank you so much, George! Always good to have you aboard.

      My experience is similar to yours. I am unable to remember a time when I didn’t have a library card. When I moved to San Francisco in 1973 the first thing I did after securing an apartment was getting that passport to knowledge. And yes… that scent. Thanks for the reminder.

  2. Joe, I have said here, probably a couple times or more, that my Dad was a librarian. You have described the wonderland that is contained within the walls of a library.

    Also, because of my early relationship with a library, I have an understanding of books and the special nature of books that many do not understand. My Son understands it. Alas, no one else in my family does. Books are not objects that merely contain words–they contain the words and the very thoughts of the writers or authors that I will never get to meet. Yet, through their books, they teach me their information, their philosophies, their thoughts. I cannot bring myself to throw out a book. That’s a problem now since we live in senior housing. My books, hundreds of them, are in storage. I am going to have to make a decision soon as to what to do with them. Whatever decision I make, I know that they will no longer be mine–that’s going to be a tough thing to live with. When I explain to my family that they don’t understand the nature of books, they say, “They’re just books, Dad.” Of course, they are not. They are . . . wonderful pieces of the universe that have entertained, informed, and, sometimes, became a pillow as I napped on the floor while reading. (Which I can no longer do because of physical limitations.) The Bible talks about the making of goods not having an end. Yes. I know I’m supposed to take that to heart. But yeah, isn’t that making of new books a wonderful thing.

    By the way, one of the things that I miss about research is the serendipity and synergy of doing catalog research. After libraries went digital, many kept the upright cases of millions of books for awhile. Alas, many libraries are now discarding the old cards and drawers. There were so many collisions and creative outcomes of thoughts, words, and sentences that came up while going through the cards. Well, as does everyone else, I will adapt to the computer way cataloging. But I probably won’t like it. As our beloved, late Irma Bombeck used to say, “It ain’t the same, McGee.”

  3. Thank you, Jim. I’ve been lucky with my family as we all understand the value of libraries, reading, etc. right down to my granddaughter.

    Also…thank you for (among other things in your comments today) reminding us of the card catalog. I had entirely forgotten about those! Yes, the online digital search is easier, saves time, tells you if the book is in or not, blah blah blah. But there was a bit of a thrill for me — particularly as an early reader — to go to a card catalogue and find other books by an author that was new to me, traipsing to the shelf, and finding their books there. As Thomas Wolfe said, “Oh lost!”

    • I meant “catalog” the second time around. For some reason, I can’t edit my responses…

  4. Love your story, Joe. I was smiling the whole way through.

    Last Friday, I drove three hours to visit a library “down the Cape” (for those unfamiliar with the phrase, it’s regional lingo for Cape Cod in Massachusetts). Thursday of the same week, I drove an hour north for a book event at a NH library. And this past Tuesday I spoke with my local librarian in town. Being surrounded by all those stories is a magical feeling unlike any other. 🙂

    • Thank you, Sue. And Ioved yours regarding your trips to the library. All of those stories that you mentioned were surrounded by you on those days, not to mention the readers who were lucky enough to see and hear you. Terrific!

  5. I still go to my local library and the main library. They are a good source of informtion, new books and DVDs. One reason I moved to Fort Lauderdale, FL, was that it had an excellent library system. Don and I lived on Capitol Hill in DC and those poor libraries were a mess. Librarians struggled in the horrible heat with no air-conditioning, and they had holes — actual leaking holes — in the roof. Don’t get me started . . .

  6. The Cuyahoga County Library is my office. I spend most days working there–either at the Chagrin Falls branch or the Writing Center at the South Euclid Branch. (Neither has the ambiance Karl Marx experience working daily at the British Museum, but then I’m not writing anything as monumental either.)

    Once a month I participate in a Writer’s Workshop at South Euclid led by novelist Sarah Willis.

    The display racks with the book selected by the librarians are indeed sources of serendipity, more, in my case, for browsing than for checking-out-and-reading. Ditto for the patron-contributed library sale book shelves. Each branche has a copy of the Chicago Manual of Style within a few steps of where I sit. I don’t think using CMoS on line would be nearly as pleasurable. (And 2/3 of the audience snorted at the word “pleasurable.”)

    Between my wife and me, we get two or three books a week, sometimes more, delivered from academic and public libraries across Ohio. The system permits the Cuyahoga County Library to serve our more academic needs without trying to be an academic library.

    • Eric, speaking only for myself…I didn’t snort. There is a special place in my heart for the Chicago Manual of Style. The physical copy, that is.
      Thanks for sharing your story about the inner, less visible workings of the library.

  7. I’m allergic to cigarette smoke and strong perfume which most library books absorb from readers so ebooks are my go-to so 2-3 years. Plus, larger fonts. I’ve reached the point where a friend will give me a paper book, and I’ll try to get the digital format so I won’t have to open the paper book. A very sad admission from an English major and lit teacher.

  8. I’m with you on the smoke and the fonts for the respective reasons you listed, Marilynn. I just received for review a physical ARC with type so small that I’m going to have to read it in short doses. There’s no e-copy available through the usual sources either. Oh well. Thanks for sharing.

  9. I am writing my next book in a new genre (psychological suspense) and checked out in one fell swoop 11 books from the library (gathered from other branches) and spend an afternoon reading the first 20 pages of each. Fascinating to compare and contrast the many ways to start such a book. Later that day I set an experiment for myself – which ones did I remember after 5 hours? I ljoked when I checked out so many at one time – told the librarian that Amazon was not going to be happy with me. Today’s their annual book drive so I’ve got to run – stacks of books to go through and see which ones I need to donate.

    • Thanks for sharing, Maggie. And good luck with that WIP. I like that idea of yours about reading the first twenty pages of each book and seeing which one you remember after five hours. Very cool…

  10. I used to borrow a grocery sack (the old paper kind) every week from the library and read everyone before I returned them. Now, I rely on digital since the repetitive movements of my first profession, a state certified lab Optician, wore out my thumb joints by my early 30s and holding books was agony. I laid them on my lap and used something to hold the pages open. I don’t need to do that with a digital book. Thankfully a wonderful hand surgeon restored most of my movement and eliminated all the pain so I can occasionally read a print book. However, with the nearest library, a very small one, eight miles away, borrowing and returning books isn’t convenient, but I am pleased to know lots of people who still use the libraries. I would hate to see them go away even though I don’t use one often.

    • Thanks for sharing, Cecilia. Your situation illustrates another potential consumer base for eBooks and audiobooks that people don’t normally consider. You also I’m sure made some folks (including myself) consider how fortunate those of us are who have library branches so close to us. Good luck!

  11. Good afternoon, Joe.

    Great Post.

    I have to admit that I don’t visit our local library as often as I should. With all my shelves filled with books (and not being able to part with them) I have made a decision to buy fiction in ebooks only. The only “real” books I am buying are craft of writing books, and they are stacking up vertically.

    Your stories reminded me of growing up in a tiny rural Ohio village. I spent the summers playing sports and reading books. We had a small branch of a county library in our town. I remember the concerned elderly librarian redirecting me from the Hardy Boys series to the classics. I read both.

    Your post reminds me that it is time to visit my local library. Thanks for the reminder. And have a great weekend.

    • Good afternoon, Steve, and thank you for your kind words and for sharing. My library as a child didn’t even have the Hardy Boys books. The library system had some problem with them (as well as Nancy Drew, Rick Brant, Tom Swift, etc.) and did not carry them. They also had a problem with the Tarzan novels and didn’t carry those, either. I found plenty of other things, however, to keep me occupied, and was able to obtain elsewhere what I couldn’t get through the library. I still have many of them. Like you, I find it hard to give them up.

      Hope you have a great weekend as well. Thanks again.

  12. My local library is small and wonderful. I go pretty often just to be there and read. The librarian always wakes me up in time to go home.

  13. I had much more time to read as a kid & I miss that. My all time favorite memory is leaving the library, my arms loaded with every Zane Grey novel I could carry–the ones published in the hardcover tan binding with the red/blue section on the spine. And yes, mucho time on the card catalog.

    When I moved to Arizona 22+ years ago library card was the first thing I did after state driver’s license. I’m a little further away from the main library (where the rare books room is housed) but there’s a local branch not too far away. But the reduction in library hours (especially access to the rare books room) kind’ve limits my options for getting to the library.

    I love print books, but with visual changes, I do most of my reading on e-book borrows. However, because I like history, often times the books I need don’t have an ebook option so I still go regularly (but less often) to the library.

    As someone mentioned above, I worry what will become of my books when I’m gone. I will turn over in my grave if someone just tosses them in the trash.

    Also difficult is that I have a fairly large collection of mass market paperbacks of Star Trek The Original Series. Mass market print is pretty small for me these days but lordy, I hate to give those books up. But they are taking up space. Sigh. And the prices of those books, in e-book format, really haven’t come down that much so it’d be expensive to replace the collection. So in the meantime, sit & gather dust they will.

    • Zane Grey, BK? What great taste at a young age! That’s one of the downsides of growing up…less leisure time to read. And then when we reach the age and station where we have a little more time, our eyesight is fading. I give thanks for the type enlargement feature on the Kindle.

      Don’t give up those Star Trek books!!! In my early teens a friend of mine bought all of the Ace Books Burroughs’ paperbacks. We lost touch with each other. I found out recently that he had passed and reached out to his family. My friend had kept those books — in several trips back and forth across the country — and they were worth a fortune! Hang on to your collection!

      • Okay, I won’t (you didn’t even have to twist my arm. LOL!)

        Plus they are part of other fond book memories–back in the late 70’s and early 80’s, you could go to Waldenbooks, etc. every month to get the latest Star Trek book that had come out. Which I did religiously. Good times.

  14. I went to the library a lot as a kid, with my mother and brother. We boys spent most of our time there looking at pictures in the kids’ section while our mom did whatever she did.

    I became truly addicted to being in a library on board the USS Saratoga. It was a small space with a rather poor selection available, but it was quiet, it was comfortable, and I often found myself alone there. You stuff more than five-thousand men in a ship and time alone becomes a rare and precious thing. I read Mack Bolan. I read Louis L’Amour. I read every Stephen King novel they had. I never checked books out, though that was an option. I just sat in a brown vinyl-covered and overstuffed chair, incongruous with it’s haze-gray spartan surroundings, and I escaped for an hour or two. After a time, I could no longer hear the roar of the catapults overhead launching planes off the deck. The place kept me sane.

    I’ve been a “Friend of the Library” member since I mustered out and visit at least once a week. I take my kids.

    • I said how quiet it was, then mentioned the “roar” of the catapults… Truth is, the cats were a near-constant thunder and after a month on board, we noticed them only as one might notice the sound of a faraway lawnmower on a summer day.

      • Carl, thanks so much for sharing. It escaped me for some reason that a carrier (or any ship of that nature) would have a library, but of course it would. Thank you for your service, Sir.

  15. Since I read almost exclusively on ebooks, I don’t go to the library as often as I used to. I reserve ebooks online. I used to read both but since I got cataracts I can’t read regular print well anymore. I also need that adjustable font. Once I get the surgery, I hope that will change. I love physical books as much as ever. I was in the local library about a month or so ago and realized how much I miss the atmosphere. I support libraries and hope to never see them become obsolete as many of the physical book stores are becoming these last few years.

    • Thanks as always for stopping by, Rebecca. And good luck on the surgery. I think we’ll continue to have bookstores, just as we still have record stores in various forms. My concern is that at some point publishers might determine that it is economically unfeasible to publish books in physical form. We will see what the future holds…

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