Since moving to DC and rediscovering the joys of reading, I have become very fond of my local public library. With my speed reading skills (one of the skills gained from a philosophy degree) I usually find myself there two or three times a week. The old-fashioned term for this is bookish, but I prefer intelligent. When I got a job in the city I was excited to learn that the main branch of the DC library system was only a few blocks from my work. The main branch of the library! This meant this library had a good chance of being the largest library in the entire city. All those lovely bookshelves I would be able to browse to my heart's content! And then I visited and discovered the sad truth. The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library is the main library for the lost men of DC.
The MLK, Jr. Library was originally designed to be a stunning modernist tribute to a stunningly modern hero, but unfortunately, this being the District of Columbia, the library system ran out of money and never covered the walls with marble or finished any of the other grand schemes meant for the library. In hindsight, this may have been for the best, because now in addition to being the main hub for DC's books, it is also the main hub for the homeless population. One of the librarians informed me that there is a homeless shuttle that brings them in from the suburbs to downtown so they can panhandle, smoke, and commune with the pigeons when all else has failed. In the two and a half years that I have been visiting this library I have overheard conversations about being rudely woken up from wet dreams, what friendship really consists of, and how they are actually related to the president. I have seen the library police escort misbehaving patrons and deposit them on the sidewalk, and I am always surprised when the elevator doesn't reek of urine. I believe this is rather wearing for the librarians, because I have noticed they generally wear protective gloves and stay behind their counters as much as possible.
Most of the patrons seem to put their books on hold so they can spend as little time as possible. At one point I tried to follow my fellow library-goer's example and put my books on hold. But it is very dissatisfying picking up books already selected for you with your name on them. The lure of the bookshelves calls to me from across the library. It is always so much more exciting to go and root out the exact book you were looking for or stumble upon a book you feel a sudden attraction to or just read the spines knowing that any one of them might hold the next story that changes your life. There's no serendipity in selecting books via internet, and so I make a point of browsing the bookshelves while smiling at everyone, homeless and librarian alike, because, let's face it, if I were homeless I would probably want to spend my days at the library reading as much as I could.
To be a faithful patron of the library one has to have determination and be good at blocking out the things you don't really need to notice. But I think of that as a character building lesson. And I recently learned that this problem is not isolated to the MLK, Jr. library. I went to an author lecture last year at the West End library, which is right outside of Georgetown and found signs in the bathroom prohibiting changing one's clothes, having sex, throwing away diapers, and detailed instructions on how to successfully flush the toilets. I can only assume that they have many of the same problems there as they have at MLK. Or perhaps worse, since I've never seen those signs in my library. But then again, I've never been brave enough to go into a bathroom there.