Tuesday, December 11, 2007


When I began college in the fall of 1973, I was commuting back and forth that first semester and learned to hang out in the library when I had long breaks between classes. I didn't have the money to buy even Cokes in a cafe, and I'd always been enamored of libraries anyhow -- live in towns as a child where the nearest library is half an hour or more away by car and you come to see them as sacred zones.

I would choose a carrel near the back right wall (don't ask me why the right), work for a while on assignments, then take a break by roaming the stacks and pulling out books that looked interesting. I used the corner stairwells to go up and down levels; I was painfully shy, and I did not have on clothes that fit the fashion of the times. If I'd had a cloak of invisibility, I'd have lived in it.

By the second semester, I was living in town but didn't have enough money to adequately heat my residence nor to eat two days a week. On those days, Tuesdays and Thursdays, I stayed at the library until closing. There it was comfortingly warm or cool, depending on the weather, had bright lights and extreme distraction from my belly.

Some time during that first year, I gathered up enough courage to go the card catalogue -- right out in the open of the first floor, within sight of the sitting area and the check-out desk -- and look up "Lesbian" (also "Lesbians" and "Lesbianism"). I made sure no one was nearby when I did so, and I was prepared to flip to cards further on (Lethe, lichen, London Bridge) if anyone approached. I'd pull a square of scrap paper from the wooden boxes of them on top of each row and write down a couple of call numbers -- no titles, of course.

After using the stairs to find the right floor, I'd slowly close in on the book, my pulse hammering, sweat greasing my forehead. When I found the magic text (it was never checked out, not in 1973), I'd hide it between several other larger volumes carried with the spines down and walk quickly to my carrel, praying I wouldn't run into anyone from one of my classes.

Once I'd sat for a while, got my breath back and cleared my head, I'd dive into whatever I'd scored.

I read a lot of terrible shit about homosexuality this way. I began but didn't finish The Well of Loneliness. I learned about inverts and tribades, passing women and suicide. It was hard to swallow on an empty stomach, but it was something. There was no question of checking out the book: I could not have done that in a million years. When I left, I'd hide the volume in the stack of another abandoned carrel, so no one could possibly trace it to me.

And, as feminism entered the news, I'd memorize names like Susan Brownmiller, Gloria Steinem, Shulamith Firestone, Kate Millett, and look them up as well. When I had their books back at the carrel, I'd look in the subject index first to see if Lesbian or Homosexuality was listed. It wasn't always, and if it was, there were only a few citations. Enough to keep me from checking out those books, too, but not enough to give me a place to stand.

You simply cannot imagine how hungry I was. Unless you lived through it, too.

Then, one day, I was roaming the stacks on a generic whatever-caught-my-eye break when a small volume literally fell from a metal shelf when I walked by. I picked it up to replace it, glancing at the cover: It was a collection of Sappho. I'm not making this up. I froze in my tracks, looked around in a panic to see if anyone was within range, but I was utterly alone.

I was so shocked, I broke protocol: I opened the book there, out in the open. On the page in front of me I read a fragment that had something about a red dress. And I felt a drench of emotion crash over me. I literally sat down on the floor because I thought I might pass out. I closed the book and hid it on a shelf behind me before I closed my eyes and repeated the lines in my head. Over the gap of centuries, continents, and unimaginable difference, I understood the heat behind what she was saying. I knew what she meant.

Someone else really did think like me.

I wasn't able to take the book back to my carrel; it was too volatile. I left it where I had hidden it, and I did go back a few times to read another poem or two.

Things changed, not just inside me but also in the world Out There. The next semester, when I checked the card catalogue, there was a new entry for Lesbian Nation. I almost passed out with anticipation. When I got it back to my carrel, it was a book that had clearly been read -- it had lost its dust jacket and was now just a cloth cover with an easy to open spine. But the name was big on the spine.

That was the first book I ever checked out. I hid it in a stack of staid others, of course, but at the check-out counter stacks were disassembled so covers could be opened and cards slid from pockets (they were still using the old methods then). The librarian didn't bat an eye; if she had, I would have claimed it was a mistake and abandoned it on the counter. Instead, I hugged it to my chest as I scrambled for my car, and once home, I hunkered under the blankets to keep warm as I read it through that night.

It wasn't an especially good book, I discovered. But I had checked it out, and that was the main thing.

The flood of women's literature began that year, and our library seemed to buy each title as fast as they could. Now I know that libraries are hives of lesbianism, keepers of the light, and before I graduated I even made the acquaintance of one of the women who worked at that particular library. She let me in on their social network, their silent decisions about book purchases. It's quite possible those formidable women behind the counter were completely aware of which card catalogue drawer held the entry for "Lesbian" and kept a surreptitious eye out for terrified girls who dared to pull it open.

I still have no explanation for why Sappho jumped off the shelf at my feet, of course. Perhaps I imagined it. Although events like that have happened since, so ... perhaps not.

If I had thought I was being watched -- if I had had to enter a search on a computer screen that was in any way linked to my student ID, or if the stacks were closed so books had to be requested -- I'd never have had the nerve to make my first, tentative forays toward light and identity. It's not 1974 any more, and the information about Lesbianism is "out there" despite the desperate attempts of the Right to roll all us back to 1958. But for isolated, rural kids like me, I don't know if it's actually any easier to be brave.

I think about that time in my life whenever I read about the Patriot Act. The article "Librarians and the Patriot Act" (by Emily Drabinski in Radical Teacher, 22 December 2006), states "The right to free inquiry relies on a right to privacy. If a user suspects that her reading habits will be tracked, her access to information is fundamentally abridged." Exactly.

I read about the creative ways librarians have found to get around the legal gag order of the Patriot Act, the signs they can (and do) post at the check-out counters and computer search screens. I read about how Santa Cruz librarians (god how I love Santa Cruz) began shredding documents daily to keep records unavailable from prying eyes. I read about how librarians are shouldering the burden of keeping libraries accessible to the homeless when all other public institutions turn them away. I remember the librarians I've known and loved, and I find it hard to believe they aren't secretly doing more to protect us all. When we've reclaimed our democracy from Bush and Cheney, perhaps we'll get to hear these stories of ingenuity and risk, just like some of us from the 70s can tell our stories about how we -- well, okay, maybe it's not time yet. Still, just as I like to think about Harriet Tubman, I like to think about librarians whose whole meaning of life derives from access to free, world-expanding information for the least among us.

Thank you, sisters and brothers. You made my existence possible. Let's honor them and help them out whenever we can, all right, readers? Go to Jessamyn West's Librarian.net (Puttin' the Rarin Back in Librarian Since 1999), read up and take steps as requested.

And if you know that line from Sappho about the red dress that I read in 1973, please send it along -- I'd like to read it again.


kat said...

So, I think these are all different translations of the same fragment. Is this what you're remembering?

Gather your lyre and sing for me
As desire once again enhances your beauty:
Your dress excites, and I rejoice
For I once doubted Aphrodite
But now have asked that soon
You will be with me again...

...come here tonight,] I beg, you, Gongyla,
take up your lyre[and sing to us;]
for once again an aura of desire
hovers around
your beauty, your dress thrills all those who see you
and the hart in my breast quickens;
once I too poured scorn on Aphrodite,
goddess of love,
but now I pray[that you will soon be here...]
oh, I wish[we were never parted...]



if not, winter
no pain

I bid you sing
of Gongyla, Abanthis, taking up
your lyre as (now again) longing
floats around you.

your beauty. For her dress when you saw it
stirred you. And I rejoice.
In fact she herself once blamed me

because I prayed

this word:
I want

I first heard of Sappho in a book called the Vandemark Mummy, by Cynthia Voigt. I was instantly fascinated. The Greek aspect was intriguing, since I was raised Greek Orthodox. The lesbian aspect was also.
In 6th grade, I found a small set of translations in the little Claremont Library, and remember being really disappointed that they didn't have any greek editions that I could try to translate (I didn't realize how ridiculous this idea was....but whatever, I was 12).
My mother raised her eyebrows...

Seriously, if I had been more self aware, I probably would have come out at 14 instead of 20...

great post, maggie.

shadocat said...

Okay, now I'm all excited (she said, after reading Sappho)...

Maggie, this so remeinds me of the time I actually stole a lesbian -themed book from the library before I came out, simply because I was terrified that by checking it out, there would be a record of me reading the book! I mailed some cash to them to replace it, but as my S/O points out so well, by pocketing that book, I also robbed others of the opportunity to read it. Oh, and her brother the librarian says, "Thank you!"

Anonymous said...

Not all libraries and librarians are so open minded. I live in metropolitan Detroit, the 'burbs. I have access to three of the best libraries in the state of Michigan.

It is almost impossible to find a "homosexual" section (mostly non-fiction). I've taken to search on the catalog computer for Lesbian Fiction. That led me to Carol Anshaw. I enjoyed two of her books.

Luckily we have one of the country's finest LGBT community centers here. It has a very nice library.

Having come-out to myself at 49, I really enjoy reading lesbian fiction.