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For The Love of Libraries
From a young age I learned that the library was my favorite haven of mine. Before moving to Wisconsin, I had lost that love unless I was going to college. When I moved to Madison, and gotten to know all of their branches of libraries, I realized how much my affection for these places of learning ran deep. Although in my hometown there is no library as posh and technologically advanced as the central library in Madison, WI, the Urbana Free Library is my second favorite because it is the library I grew up with.
As a young girl, my mother would allow my sister and I to walk the short distance from our house to go to the library. My sister and I would set out through Crystal Lake Park, across busy University street, over the bridge of a creek, and straight up the street until we reached the grey, hulking building. Back then there was a ramp that would go down to children’s area in the basement. I would always find some books I wanted to read and tuck myself away in the children’s reading/play area.
Today the reading/play area remains, but the ramp has been replaced because of new improvements and expanded areas on the beloved building. When I would visit home during my seven year stay in Madison, WI, I would always check in on the building. Before leaving my hometown in 2006, I had the pleasure of seeing the changes before, but I always wondered what more they would do to it while I was away.
Although I cannot check anything out considering a decade old fine, I can still access the Champaign County Archives and the internet on their public computers, or my own. Entering The Urbana Free Library after all these years feels amazing to me. My excitement ebbed in my body.
I took my time perusing the stacks. The library offers the use of walkers while visiting the building and I grabbed one of these to make my visit less painful as I took my time to scrutinize the shelves of the second floor. Once finished with throughly examining the books I moved to the computers, thinking I would like to use one. As I rounded the stairwell I limped to the information desk to sign up. Feet away, I stopped in my tracks. A woman stood at the desk before me, her clothes seemed clean, but at her feet a small gathering of bags were to be found. My heart stopped. Here, in my most favorite of places, inconceivably in my hometown, stood a woman of my age who was homeless. I bit back tears.
Here, amongst my favorite childhood place, could be found something that has tainted libraries for me. Blight. It isn't easy to see this, not just because I have never seen a homeless person in this library before, but because of the pattern that has seeped into my life. Noticing her meant acknowledging all the homeless people I've seen in all the libraries I been in. Not just Madison; but Peoria, IL, Champaign, and Chicago.
In Madison, WI the best place to find the homeless would be at the central branch of their library system. During the past couple of times that I have had the opportunity to visit Madison, I would go to the central branch. Not just to lay eyes on my most favorite place in the whole world(I haven’t seen much of the world), but to check up on some friends and others that I had left behind. Depending on the weather, one could find from a handful of homeless to a large group of them scattered about the first and second floors. Either on computers, at desks, or on their phones chatting amongst themselves in varying volumes; the homeless in Madison, WI are encouraged to visit this spot.
I am not so sure that is the same here in Urbana, IL. The woman takes her belongings and moves to an open computer. There is another disheveled looking man on the other side of the room. I conclude that even if they are not welcomed, at least they are not turned away. I hem and haw. I want to approach the woman. I slowly walk up behind her but she doesn’t turn. Walking in front of her I bend over just a bit, although it’s painful to do so, to whisper to her.
“Hi, um, can I speak to you for a moment?”
“Is it to speak about our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ?” She answers in a chirpy voice. Her eyes shone like glass, and I took in her stale, earthy, sweaty smell.
“Are you… without housing?” I whisper to her. Her face or voice doesn’t change with her answer although I have blatantly ignored her counter-question.
“Would you mind, that is, if it you had time at all, if I could interview you for a homeless blog that I write?”
“I would mind.” She answered without losing the lilting cadence in her voice.
“Well, it’s just that, I’ve been in your position before and I would be ever so careful to keep your anonymity. Maybe I could take you out to lunch sometime?”
“Sorry,” she insisted, never wavering in her polite tone or manner, “I am not interested in speaking with you unless you want to talk about the Lord. We can do that now if you want.”
“Uh, no, no thank you.” I replied, a bit flabbergasted. I was certain this woman had mental health problems, and it had nothing to do with her insistence on conversing about the Lord.
According to the Homelessness Point-In-Time Survey, found on City of Champaign website, there were 176 homeless persons in the city of Champaign last year(not counting children). Of those 176 persons, 32 people identified as having severe mental illness, chronic substance abuse, and/or HIV/AIDS. I have no idea why they would lump those together. This number is considerably low compared to Madison, WI. Of course Champaign isn’t as big.
It has been over 13 years since I’ve been homeless in Champaign, IL, but it’s not something I’m scared of. Champaign has it’s own library, newly remolded, but still not as nice as Madison’s central library. I’ve been there a small number of times since I’ve been home, but I did not notice any persons of the homeless variety. Before I was homeless in Madison, WI, I had never even thought of the homeless community here in my hometown. However that day, no matter how much I tried not to, I wept remorseful tears for the woman that wouldn’t speak to me about her situation.
Descending to the first floor in the elevator, my tears flowed freely once the doors shut. When I exited at the first floor I wiped my face with my white handkerchief and departed the elevator. I just couldn’t shake the disappointment that I felt for my hometown, and the Urbana Free Library. I stopped a stranger and asked her for a hug. She was kind enough to talk with me after the hug. In the middle of our conversation another woman walks up and I vaguely recognize her. Turns out, the woman used to be my high school counselor. She counseled me once again, and I left the library feeling much better.
The importance of the library in my life will not keep me from these places. No matter how much it hurts to see it in my second favorite library, experience has taught me that there will be homeless people there. And why not? Although differing libraries have differing rules they use to allow homeless to patron these establishments, they are public all the same. Oftentimes when I walk into the Danville Public Library, I see homeless men on the first floor in full view of the checkout desk, sleeping. I smile.