Today was my last day at the library where I’ve been taking these pictures. I have hundreds more, so I’ll keep posting, but I don’t work there any more. I’m moving on to a different job—a big, adult job with high heels and “the fiscal year 2014” and a printer/copier that everyone is mad at.
It’s a good thing, really, but I will say this: disappearing into the shelves was the closest thing I had to church. Taking pictures was the closest thing I had to testifying.
This 1928 NYPL overdue book slip was miraculously discovered in the 1980s during the construction of the Tenement Museum. The Museum kept the card on display, stating that thetitle of the book on the card is “one of the great mysteries, we unfortunately do not know.” That is, until yesterday, when the Museum turned to Twitter for help deciphering the handwriting. Within a few hours, the mystery was solved. The book, which may have never been returned, was Israel by by Ludwig Lewisohn. A great example of the power of social media.
In elementary school I spent many lost afternoons hiding in the library nook reading while settled deeply into a green vinyl beanbag chair surrounded by the scent of musty paper. The first rite of passage upon learning how to write one’s name was to inscribe it on a library check-out card promising the book’s safe journey and return. I remember reading the list of names that had come before me and cradling the feeling that I was a part of this book’s history and it’s shared, communal experience exposed by curly-Q handwritten names and room assignments revealing repeat customers devouring the book beyond it’s deadline. An act of declaration that’s dissolving faster than we can see as cards are removed permanently and bar codes take their place.
The Japanese term “wabi-sabi” is described as the art of finding beauty in imperfection and of accepting the natural cycle of growth, decay and death. But unlike the American culture focused on spectacle, wabi-sabi is underplayed and modest, the kind of undeclared beauty that waits patiently to be discovered. It’s found in time-worn faces of expired library books that have traveled through many hands, and across county lines until they have reached their final resting place at ex-library warehouses where safe harbors are found in Costco-sized rows of “discards” and “withdrawns” rising within inches of the ceiling.
The volumes documented in “Expired” serve as specimens akin to post-mortem photography in the Victorian Era when family members only received the honor of documentation upon their demise. Each picture serves as an homage calling out palpable echoes etched into the pages by a margin-scrawled note, a yellowed coffee splatter or sticky peanut butter and jelly fingerprints. It’s easy to feel a sense of abuse and loss, but they say much more. They show the evidence of everyone that has touched them, because they were well read, and often well loved. They were not left on shelves, untouched. Now they have a new life, as portraits of the unique shared experience found only in a library book. We must take time to celebrate the swiftly disappearing, unique communal experience offered by library books as it’s quickly replaced by downloads, finger screen-swipes and plastic newness. If you listen carefully you can hear the aching poetry calling from tattered pages that carry the burden of their years with dignity and grace.