At Random: An old library closes its doors

On the day before it closed for good, my teenage son and I visited Baton Rouge’s old Main Library to tell it goodbye. The old library will be torn down, and a gorgeous new building will open soon a few yards away.

We were surprised to feel so sentimental about the old Main’s demise. It didn’t seem designed to inspire warm and fuzzy thoughts. Built in 1966 and expanded in 1973, the library looked like a creature of its time — an architectural cousin of the ranch houses that dominated the American landscape a generation ago. It was long and low and rectangular, resembling nothing so much as a big box of books.

But the books, of course, were the reason we went to all those years. My son and his big sister got their first real taste of freedom at the Main. In the children’s section, I allowed them the unprecedented privilege of going off on their own a bit.

So much of childhood is about learning limits. You’re allowed to have only so many cookies.

But at the Main, my kids could carry home as many books as they wanted, and what they wanted. Liberated, they made choices I wouldn’t have thought to make for them. My daughter found the “Junie B. Jones” books, which were about a little girl much like her, and held on to Junie for dear life.

One day, hearing our Hoover roam the living room carpet, my son, then 4, decided that he wanted a book about how vacuum cleaners work.

He found just such a volume at the Main, and though reading it aloud at story time was like reciting a VCR manual, my wife and I endured his fetish for the mechanical. Today, he dreams of being an engineer.

The peculiar charm of the old Main, in recent years, came from the endless ingenuity of the staff in using a building that had outlived its practical life. Because the library had no real meeting space, public events at the old Main unfolded among the stacks. You couldn’t help noticing what happened at the library; in fact, you tripped over it.

Saturday chess lessons proceeded in the middle of the children’s collection. Unable to ignore the quiet shuffle of rooks and bishops and pawns, my son decided to join in. Chess remains one of his great pleasures.

One season, while researching and writing a book, I spent a lot of time among the Main’s art volumes, which is where a Spanish class routinely met. Looking at the completed book on my shelf these days, I reflexively begin to conjugate like a native of Mexico or Madrid.

When I went back to school in recent years to earn a master’s degree, the old Main provided me with almost all the research materials I needed.

As our last piece of business at the old Main, I paid a fine of $1.40 on our family’s overdue books.

But there are other debts I owe that old library that no accountant could measure, and that I could never hope to repay.