Tag Archives: libraries

Quiet Places

A quiet place in Vermont
A quiet place in Vermont

With all of the noise we are surrounded by every day, I have been thinking about quiet places. They seem hard to come by in metropolitan areas, but when I look hard enough, I can’t occasionally find them. I feel as if I should start a collection of them, listing them out carefully so that I don’t lose them, and have access to them when I feel the need for quiet.

There are some basic requirements I have for quiet places. The first is that they have to be naturally quiet. I’m not talking about places where you can pop on your noise-cancelling headset and listen to quiet. A quiet place shouldn’t have to be artificially enhanced. The best quiet places are natural quiet.

Second, a quiet place does not have to be silent. Silence is the complete absence of sound. Quiet, on the other hand, is when only soft, natural sounds intrude on an otherwise peaceful environment. The sound of winds through trees or the rustling of leaves is quiet in my books. The low whir of a ceiling fan is quiet. The distant sound of a baseball game on the radio, pleasant though that is, is not quiet, nor is the rumble of distant traffic. Birds singing at first light is not particularly quiet, while the occasional bird song in the middle of the day is quiet.

Third, a quiet place acts as a natural deterrent to intrusion. It is a place where, if you are spotted by someone else sharing the space, they will be unlikely to intrude on your quiet.

With these requirements in mind, I have started a list of quiet places. It is a short list at the moment, but I am hoping to grow it over time.

  1. An empty church. This is an excellent quiet place. I discovered this last week when we arrived at our church an hour before the kids’ Christmas pageant in order to get front-row seats. There was only two other people in the church when we arrived. It was quiet, and very close to silent. Not long after we arrived, someone began to play the piano, getting warmed up for the pageant, but in those first few minutes, I thought how nice the quiet was. The noise grew exponentially louder as more people arrived.
  2. A cemetery. Cemeteries seem almost ideal for quiet places. There are often benches scattered throughout the cemetery and I almost never see anyone sitting on them. I suspect cemeteries creep out a lot of people, but if you are looking for a quiet place, you can’t get much better than a cemetery. Not all cemeteries are equally quiet. The bigger ones are often near a busy road, and nothing destroys quiet as quickly as traffic noise. Old cemeteries built with stone wall, with large trees growing among the scattered headstones are much better suited to quiet, although these often lack benches.
  3. Libraries. Libraries have a pleasant quiet about them, but there is often a hushed murmur that ripples through them at times, a kind of constant background noise, not unlike the hum of a ceiling fan. I sometimes fantasize that the ideal quiet place is a library after it closes. I used to imagine getting locked in the library overnight, and the utter quiet of the place, and the delight at roaming the stacks of books, knowing that I could choose any one I wanted, and find a comfortable couch and read uninterrupted until clink of keys in the door the following morning.

My collection is meager, as you can see. Some places that seem like they should be quiet often are not. Parks seems like good quiet places, but too often unwanted sounds intrude. Our back deck is occasionally a good quiet place, at just the right time in the early morning or late evening, but only when the wind is rough and the sounds of it through the trees masks the low rumble of traffic from a few blocks away.

Our house, despite its many good qualities, is not a particularly quiet place. The kids are often running around. A TV is often on somewhere. It seems that the dishwasher is running when the house is otherwise quiet, or that the washing machine or dryer are humming along. If I want a real quiet place, I have to rely on the deck, or one of the places I’ve listed above.

As it happens, the place where I am writing this is unusually quiet. Or it was, until the Little Man asked Siri to play some music that I now hear thumping away on the other side of the house.

Where Would I Be Without Public Libraries?

An op-ed piece by Mary Vavrina in today’s Falls Church News-Press brought to my attention the fact that the Fairfax County Public Library Board will soon be voting on a plan to “streamline” all county library services. And in this context, “streamline” is not synonymous with “make more efficient,” unless your definition of efficiency is to simply cut service. Among the items proposed in this plan:

  • Drastically reducing the number of staff available to serve library patrons
  • Eliminating the requirement for ANY staff member to have a Masters of Library Science (MLS) Degree
  • Eliminating children/youth services librarians

National politics no longer makes my blood boil, but when people start messing with libraries, it gets my dander1 up. I have been a library user as far back as I can remember. Indeed, I’ve written about how I discovered my passion for astronomy way back in kindergarten or first grade, thanks to the Franklin Township Library in New Jersey, where i lived at the time.

It got me thinking, if, growing up, the libraries I used faced the kind of draconian streamlining proposed in the Fairfax County library system, what might I have lost? It’s really not that hard to figure out. Without a good library I would have lost, or never gained:

  1. A passion for astronomy. I discovered astronomy books like The Nine Planets when I was only five or six years old. I must have checked the book out of the library a dozen times. Why not? It was free!
  2. A passion for science. Reading about astronomy made me curious about science in general. Thankfully, there were librarians who worked well with children and could help me find new and interesting books to feed my curiosity. It was from librarians, not teachers in school, that I learned about the Dewey Decimal System, and that the science books were in the 500s.
  3. A freedom of thought. One book leads naturally to another. A library made it possible for me to experiment with everything without costing me any money. I could check out a book on the history of France. If I didn’t like it, I could return it and check out a different book, maybe one on horses, or dinosaurs. There was no risk. I was free to roam.
  4. A head start in reading. My parents read to me when I was a kid. For as far back as I can remember, I wanted to learn to read. I was frustrated by the fact that I had pretty much memorized every book I owned. The library provided a constant stream of fresh material for me to practice with as I was learning to read. I have no doubt that the library made me a better reader.
  5. The ability to think critically. You read a book and you form opinions. You learn to be critical, how to separate fact from fiction. If an author made a claim that I found farfetched, I learned to look up the sources they cited, thanks to the patient help of librarians, who taught me how to use the card catalog.
    Continue reading Where Would I Be Without Public Libraries?
  1. A word I might not have known if I didn’t have access to quality libraries growing up.

Library run

At lunch today, after dashing over to the post office to drop off a manuscript and get some holiday stamps, I headed to the library to find something to read when I finish Frameshift (which very well could be this evening).

What a delight it is, wandering through the stacks.  The local branch doesn’t have the best science fiction (or science section) for that matter (the Central library was far better), but is was good enough.  I picked up three books:

1. Uncertainty by David Lindley which is research for the December short story.
2. Cauldron by Jack McDevitt which will hopefully quench my thirst for the kind of s.f. I thought I’d be getting with Incandescence.
3. Grace by Robert Lacey, and thereby hangs a tale.

Everyone has a guilty pleasure.  For some its a TV show that they wouldn’t be caught dead watching.  For others its cooking or shopping.  For me, it’s a certain type of reading.  I read science fiction for pleasure certainly, but also as a kind of scholar of the genre, as well as a writer.  So for me, it’s a fulfills a combination of needs and desires.  I read science and history to learn (and often to get ideas for stories).  But there is one genre that I read entirely because it is what I would call a guilty pleasure:  Hollywood biographies.

Now, I don’t usually mean biographies of living Hollywood people.  I’m not at all interesting in Tom Cruise or Barbara Walters or anyone like that.  I mean "golden age" movie stars.  I loved reading Gary Giddin’s biography of Bing Crosby, A Pocketful of Dreams.  I enjoyed very much several of George Burns’ books.  So when I saw Grace sitting on the shelf today, I couldn’t resist.  Grace Kelly is my favorite actress and how could I not read her biography.  I’m looking forward to it.

Incidentally, depending upon the order in which these books are read (not fully determined yet), either Cauldron or Uncertainty will be the 400th book that I’ve read since January 1, 1996.

Library books

After work today, I headed over to the local library and checked out two books: John Scalzi’s The Ghost Brigades, sequel to Old Man’s War, and Vernor Vinge’s Hugo award-winning Rainbow’s End.

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t dream of checking out science fiction books from the library. I’d buy them and add them lovingly to my collection. But even in our commodious new abode, I am simply out of room for more books, and if I want to read these books, I have to go the borrowed route.

This fills me with a certain amount of guilt. After all science fiction writers, like most writers, make their living off royalties from book sales. Sure, there are such things as library sales. And yes, I have bought used books before. But I’ve always tried to accrue my books used only if they weren’t readily available new first, so as not to take any money out of the pockets of my fellow writers. Libraries are noble institutions and I balance my guilt against my patronage and use thereof. All-in-all, however, I must admit that I was pleased to use my local library. It’s conveniently located on the drive home from work. And they have a pretty good science fiction selection.

Both books are due on September 18th, but I think I can finish them by then. If not, I can always renew them online.

Library card!

I got my library card today for the Arlington Public Library system. There are nine libraries in the system, 2 of which are within walking distance of the new house. My card also gives me privileges in nearby libraries, like Alexandria. There is a library right near work, across the park, and that is where I went to sign up for my card. I didn’t have time to browse, but I’ll get in there eventually.


Smithsonian Institution, of which I am a national member, has a program called “Adopt-a-library” to which I have been contributing for several years now, and today I mailed in a check to “re-adopt” two libraries for the coming year. The program provides the libraries with subscriptions to NATURAL HISTORY magazine for a full year. It doesn’t cost very much money ($18 per library) and it really helps libraries, whose funds are always being cut these days.

For the past three or four years now, I’ve adopted to the two libraries that had the greatest impact on me:

1. The Franklin Township Library in Somerset, New Jersey. This is the first public library I ever attended and it was this library that introduced me to science and astronomy through a book called The Nine Planets by Franklyn Mansfield Branley. I checked this book out of the library repeatedly and read it until I had the book memorized. It is because of this book that I learned to love science, astronomy and science fiction and for that I am forever grateful. Imagine if that library were not there when I was 6 or 7 years old!

2. The Granada Hills Public Library in Granada Hills, California. This was the first library for which I had a library card of my very own. I spent a lot of time in this library, checking out books, and reading books. I loved it. I would go there, and check out books, and then read them while I walked home (about a mile). I was free to roam about the library and no one was telling me what I could and could not read, and so I sampled a bit of everything that attracted my twelve-year-old attention. (Yes, including that famous book Girls and Sex which I read with fascination over a period of several Saturdays in a cubicle at the library because I was too afraid to bring it up to the front desk to check it out.

There are lots of great library programs out there. Support them if you can!