Susan Stinson: Boston library once again at pivotal location in city’s history
Responders search the area around the Boston Public Library near the finish line of the Boston Marathon with a ladder truck in Boston Tuesday, April 16, 2013. Two bombs blew up seconds apart Monday at the finish line of one of the world's most storied races, tearing off limbs and leaving the streets spattered with blood and strewn with broken glass. At least three people were killed, including an 8-year-old boy, and more than 170 were wounded. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson) Purchase photo reprints »
BOSTON — The Central Library in Copley Square has been closed because it is considered part of a crime scene because of the bombings at the Boston Marathon. A message on the library’s website assures visitors all staff are safe, and that the building itself lost only a single broken window.
Beautiful, ordinary library business is still going on, though: late fees for books and DVDs are being waived, and all other branches of the library are open.
A library can be a place for reflection, refuge and solace. It is also a place to gather (sometimes quietly, sometimes not). It is a place where people come to talk, to listen, to write, to study, to read, to meet, to plan, to teach, to learn, to play and to dream.
A note on the Boston Public Library website mentions that this is National Library Week and provides a link inviting visitors to tell their stories about the library.
In the early 1980s, I used to go the library in Copley Square to use the bathroom. It was a magnificent bathroom, with marble sinks and lots of stalls. I was new to the East Coast, just out of college in Colorado, where I had grown up. I had a job that summer scraping and painting an old fire escape behind a brownstone on Beacon Hill.
I spent my free time wandering around the city trying to get to know New England by slowly, obsessively reading “Moby Dick” (which left me in awe and in tears; I wanted to write something that good), and spent my days covered with sweat, rust and thick black paint, learning to use a power sander and slowly ascending the fire escape until, finally, I was high enough to see the river.
There were no facilities for me on the worksite, so every day before I got on the Green Line for the ride home, I walked into the library and went downstairs to use the bathrooms and wash up a little in the sink. I didn’t want to get anything dirty, so, as much as I loved books, I never wandered the stacks.
The truth is, I’d never seen a library so stately, and I was a little intimidated. (I did go to see a reading there by the novelist Jayne Anne Phillips that, even though she apologized for having a head cold, left me stunned by the power of her writing.) I was young, filthy and clueless, living alone in a big city for the first time, and the library made me welcome. I think of it with love.
Last April, I was back in Copley Square to read some of my fiction on a panel at the conference of the Popular Culture Association. I was there a couple of days before the start of the Boston Marathon, so the conference hotel was filled with runners and their families gathering from all over the country. One morning, I walked to the library for old times’ sake. The tents were already up for the finishing line of the race, and I sat on a bench in the sun for a while, watching the preparations.
Then I went into the library to see an exhibit called “John Adams Unbound,”made up of volumes from the second president’s personal library.
John Adams donated his library of more than 3,000 books to the people of Massachusetts. It is now housed at the Boston Public Library. At the exhibit, I saw books by Isaac Newton, Miguel Cervantes and Mary Wollstonecraft (that one was filled with argumentative comments by Adams in the margins). There was a copy of the pamphlet “Common Sense” by Thomas Paine, which, according to the exhibit notes, Adams purchased on his way to the Continental Congress in 1776. There was a copy of the first American edition of the Koran. Also on display was a copy of his notes from an event known to history as the Boston Massacre.
On March 5, 1770, a crowd of Boston residents threw sticks, oyster shells and snowballs at a group of British soldiers, who fired into the crowd, killing five colonists. A young lawyer, Adams stood up for his belief in the right of every person to a fair trial by taking on the legal defense of the soldiers.
They were eventually set free. This was a very unpopular stand, but the notes to the exhibit quote Adams on his feeling that his participation in the trial was “one of the best Pieces of Service I ever rendered my Country.”
As the investigation into the bombings moves forward, I am holding onto my memories of the tender welcome that the Boston Public Library offered me when I was young.
I am thinking of those who died; those who are injured, including some who are newly disabled; and those whose inner and outer lives have been disrupted.
I am feeling protective of shared public life, both in the libraries and on the streets. I wish for the library’s moment as a crime scene to be brief and for its time as a place of reading, learning, community, welcome and solace to be long. I’m wishing, too, for myself, my state, and my country, a response to the violence that includes the principled courage John Adams showed when he made sure that those British soldiers got a fair trial.
Susan Stinson is the writer in residence at Forbes Library in Northampton and author of the forthcoming “Spider in a Tree” (Small Beer Press, October 2013).