I love old movies. There is a 1939 black-and-white version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame that I adore. In it, Quasimodo, played by Charles Laughton, spirits away Esmerelda, played by Maureen O’Hara, up to one of the bell towers of the Notre Dame cathedral to save her from a false charge. While he has her cradled in his arms he calls out “Sanctuary!” over and over again to the masses below, while they cry out and rejoice in her being saved from the authorities.
When I think of libraries, I sometimes think of Laughton and his cry of sanctuary. Libraries are a place where people can pick up books, watch a program, engage in conversations and sometimes do something as simple and mundane as get out of the rain. And in saying that, I am not taking that simple grace for granted, because for our least fortunate brethren, getting out of the rain can be a very huge deal, indeed. When you are not housing challenged, dodging raindrops with an umbrella or folded newspaper over your head may not seem like an immense inconvenience because you know that there is a dry space waiting for you somewhere. For others, out in the world without even an umbrella to their name, libraries offer a place to shelter and dry off, to get out of wet socks, and to keep one’s belongings from being totally saturated. Libraries, in their very public, open, and unprejudiced way, offer sanctuary to those who need it in ways that many of us cannot begin to see or understand.
Libraries are a sanctuary, too, for people who come to us from foreign countries who seek information that will aid them in their immigration journey. Libraries help to secure the necessary paperwork or connections that the undocumented need to find shelter or other resources that are necessary to establish residency here in our community and our country. For many folks, living here in the United States is a birthright that comes with freedoms and privileges often overlooked, unappreciated, or forgotten. But for many, the library becomes a very important and magical place, where items and information that are dear in other countries are here to be used for free, where materials that would cost the equivalent of a bag of groceries or more are available to be checked out and experienced with their families in the safety of their own homes.
The library is an oasis for many. Again, I think of those old movies and the thrill the adventurers in those films would have in finding an oasis, filled with flowing waters, shade, and fruit trees in the middle of a barren land. The library, for those of those far from home, sometimes feels like an oasis, too. Libraries are not necessarily built for comfort. Many facilities have furniture left over from their earliest days – furniture that was built to be functional, sturdy and meant to last for generations. Older Carnegie libraries were solidly built brick-and-wood affairs, made to be a shining example of a community’s pride and acceptance of its responsibility to better the lives of its citizens. So, when wanderers come to libraries to sit, dream, and wonder about “what comes next,” those hard, old wooden tables and oaken chairs can feel like luxurious sofas in a jeweled palace. To those on the road and in need of shelter and direction, a library becomes a beacon and a place to find rest, shade, and a guide.
I think of Charles Bukowski, who praised libraries all his life, who became the writer that he was thanks to libraries and the sanctuary that they offered him as a young man. He once mentioned berating a besotted fan who showed up unannounced at his home one day, bearing a stolen copy of one of his works in hand. Bukowski knew the importance of libraries and the value of their collections and made sure that his young visitor understood that, too, before he turned him around to return the book. Libraries gave Mr. Bukowski sanctuary, a place to get away from an abusive father, to find himself in books in a place where he felt protected, safe, anonymous, and welcomed all at the same time.
When Quasimodo whisked Esmerelda away, he was giving her a safe place out of the eyes of those who wished her harm. The library, in so many ways, does that in the simplest ways, and yet, to many – those without resources, a home, a place to shelter in on the bleakest of days – that anonymous safety becomes a solution in a world filled with complex problems that, for some, seem to go on unabated. I am thankful in this season where we give thanks for so many things to be part of a profession and to be allied with an organization that prizes its ability to provide the simplest of services that mean so much to so many people. I love being able to stand at the door and hand out tickets for library computer services in these pandemic-driven times because I know that those fifty minutes are fifty minutes out of the weather and a chance to dry off, to use a restroom, and to commune with people, if only for a moment, who care. So, let us cry out “sanctuary!” for those who need it. The library, thankfully, is here to respond and give help and resources to make it in this very tough and sometimes unforgiving world.