My pillar of privilege: a love letter to public libraries

August 30, 2021 6:34 PM

a crown icon and the words "rising voices award winner"
Photo of the West Roxbury Branch Library. Photo courtesy of the author.

Photo of the West Roxbury Branch Library. Photo courtesy of the author.

My curtains are open today, drowning my room in sweltering sunlight. I double-check that my books are in order, then triple-check my computer screen to make sure my Airpods are connected and my camera is pointed at the right angle. 

I twist in my chair awkwardly as I wait for my mentor to arrive. I’m reaching for a pen to fiddle with when suddenly the screen turns dark. I think for a second that my computer has shut off when suddenly Angel’s smiling face comes into view. 

“Hi!” She exclaims. I see her squint a bit against the glare of her screen. “It’s very bright where you are.” 

It’s the morning where I am in Boston and night in Quezon City, where Angel lives. Strange to think that despite being in the same Zoom call, Angel is already 12 hours into the future. I try not to think about it too much, knowing that it will send me into a spiral of speculation about the parallel timelines of the Earth. 

We catch up on silly things, like our plans for the rest of the week, what essays Angel is concocting this week for publication, and what I am reading at the moment. When I start talking about Renegades again, she listens attentively. I almost think that she is taking notes in her head, memorizing every word I’m saying. 

“Did you read Six of Crows yet?” I ask. I recommended her the iconic book several weeks ago in one of our lengthy email threads. I’d already read three of her recommendations (all from the To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before trilogy) and loved them. 

She chews on her lip. “Not yet. I couldn’t find it at my library and I haven’t had the time to go to the bookstore.”

I nearly fumble and hit the red “Disconnect” button at the bottom of my screen. Her library doesn’t have “Six of Crows?” But it’s the most iconic YA book of all time! 

She misinterprets my silence (and my gaping mouth) as annoyance. “Yeah, I’m sorry.” She flops her hand as though to say what can you do about it? “I haven’t been there in a while but I thought I’d check. But nope. They just have the same old, outdated academic stuff like they did four, five, ten years ago.” 

If my mom were present at the meeting, she’d tell me to close my mouth before some flies got the wrong idea. But she isn’t present, so all I can do is mull over Angel’s words with mounting horror. How does her city not have a properly funded library? How does anyone in her city read? Does anyone in her city read? How can Angel, a book-loving nerd like me, survive in a place that didn’t appreciate libraries?!

The horror doesn’t stop there — Angel tells me about how her city’s mayor stopped renovating the library a few years back after people stopped visiting (courtesy of the outdated selection). 

All I can think about is how much impact libraries had on me as a kid. My mom used to take me to them all the time. I remember how the fluorescent lights washed the blue and red bean bags on the carpeted floor slightly yellow like I was seeing everything from an old photo, cast in sepia. A little farther left, there would be spinning metal shelves that proudly displayed the covers of new releases — and those would creak every time a patron came over to whirl the metal wires and skim through the titles. I loved running through the rows upon rows of shelves, brushing my fingers across the plastic-wrapped spines of the stories I hadn’t yet explored.

I can’t imagine my life without my libraries. And yet, here Angel is, still thriving and reading and listening to my rambles about the copious amounts of books I check out every week, with a smile on her face. 

I feel kind of awful after that. I feel like I’ve knocked her down and shone a spotlight on my pillar of privilege. I’d assumed that my love for public libraries was simple and universal. I’d never stopped to imagine that outside my little bubble of the world, there were people who didn’t have the same fluorescent lights and floating metal shelves and mismatched beanbags that I grew up with. 

Even after we say our goodbyes and I click the red “Disconnect” button, I don’t move from my chair. Instead, I sit at my creaky desk and fidget with a pen. And I think. 

Though I am familiar with the word privilege, I’ve only ever really seen it in the context of race or gender. I’d never thought that whenever I walked out the doors with a tote bag of books weighing me down, that I was exercising privilege. My privilege of access. 

There are a lot of people who will say that privilege isn’t real or that it’s a manmade construct based on prejudices. I disagree. I think privilege applies to so many aspects of life that it is inseparable from the inherent truth of the human experience. It applies to so many aspects of daily life. Access to public spaces. Financial security. Education. And more, so much more. 

At the same time, I’ve realized that privilege doesn’t just disappear in a poof of smoke as soon as you acknowledge it. It lingers, it follows, and it haunts you. It’ll take a real fight to dismantle this uneven playing field. 

My life certainly isn’t perfect — but with my libraries, I might just be living the reality that someone else in this world covets more than anything else. After my insensitivity towards Angel, I’ve resolved to check myself in the future. I make sure that now when I speak to others — even if they’re close friends of mine — that I am never acting incredulous when they do or don’t have something. It might seem like a joke to some, a way to play off when their friend is forgetting this or hasn’t done that. But for me, I’ve realized that you can never know when someone’s supposed “incompetency” is actually more deeply rooted than you could ever imagine. 

I’ve taken on some bigger steps — like volunteering for organizations whose missions are to provide access to young and underprivileged writers — but the true change comes in my day-to-day behavior. A shift in mindset comes first before all else. The next time I hop on a Zoom call with Angel, I’ll remember who I am and where I’m from. I’ll remember how lucky I am. And I’ll remember that not everyone is me, and that’s a good thing. Because while I’m a huge fan of cloning myself (to incite more chaos, obviously), I do realize that I’ll miss all the Angels in the world. And all the Moms and Sisters and Aunts and Uncles. That realization is striking — and it’s got me thinking and changing and growing as a person. After all, the solution to privilege isn’t some flying superhero who knows how to grow money on trees. The answer to this question is me. And it’s you.

Featured articles: