This morning, instead of working at home or at my co-working space, I’m working at a local library. My county’s library system has been renovating many of our local libraries, and some of the newer ones are spectacular! My favorite, the Silver Spring library, is a tower of learning and connection: beautiful, high ceilinged, light filled spaces; meeting rooms of all sizes; a fabulous and fun children and teen space on the top floor; nonprofits, and even a coffee shop, on site! I love to work there, and my daughter and I enjoy hanging out there, browsing and reading, on the weekends.

Today’s library is different. It is an older, smaller library, and I hope it dodges the renovation bullet and never changes. Why? Two words:

Book smell.

Close your eyes, and travel in your mind to the libraries you visited as a child. Breathe in deeply. Can you smell it? That slightly musty, dusty smell of books. You just can’t get that smell at a newer library, though if you grab an older volume off a shelf, open it, and bury your nose in the spine, you might get lucky and steal a whiff.

This library has book smell. And big windows that look out to leafy trees. And wood furniture (yes, actual wood!). And children’s story time. And cushy chairs. And plants. And a window seat with cushions, that practically begs you to stay for a while.

But this library is not stuck in the past. Even in the hour that I’ve been here, I’ve noticed a foreign language conversation group and people diligently using the public computers. This library has maintained its charm while remaining relevant for today.

When you walk into a local library, you see:

  • Community members from different backgrounds gathered in the same space for learning, connection, and inspiration
  • Trained professionals who are there to help you make the most of the library’s resources
  • Print and digital resources that can help you learn just about anything you need to know
  • Though there are some exceptions… people who generally respect the rules and respect one another

What is it about a library that makes (most) people remember, in this day and age: “Hey, I’m here with other people. I should be mindful of that. I should act in a way where we all can share this space together, without disturbing one another.”

Without even making a conscious decision, (most of us) know when we enter a library that we need to quiet down, be respectful, and cooperate with one another in order to make the space work. What is the secret sauce in the library that accomplishes this? Have we all been well taught as children, by our schools or our families, that this is how we act in the library? Is it the presence of the books? Is it book smell?

What can we do in other areas of our civic life – in our neighborhoods, workplaces, and public spaces – to create this sense of shared responsibility for a shared experience?

I’m not saying that every place we go should feel and sound like a library. No way! I don’t want my gym, my grocery store, my shopping mall, or my coffee shop to feel like a library. But I’m wondering what we can learn from libraries about cultivating a “we’re all in this together” ethos.

Maybe I should find a book about that…