THE PARKING lot of the Catonsville library is always filled, at least whenever I go. Even though the library recently doubled the number of spaces, I still can't find a vacant one. It's always the same story -- I pull in off Frederick Road, drive slowly around the back of the nondescript brick building and end up at the Beaumont Avenue exit.
Although Beaumont is a two-way street, two no-left-turn signs glare at me. The signs add a layer of exasperation on top of the frustration that travels with me on my tour through the parking lot.
Glancing to the right, I always see a block's worth of empty space guarded jealously by no parking signs. Looking to the left, I see plenty of empty spaces in front of the stately Catonsville homes. The traffic on Beaumont Street is almost as busy as the traffic on the moon.
Invariably, I turn left and quickly pull into a parking space. Car parked, I walk purposefully to the library. My stride is brisk -- energized by the feeling that always accompanies the exercise of civil disobedience performed in the name of a higher purpose; in this case, the pursuit of good literature.
Once inside the library, I am welcomed by the same familiar elements. There's the comforting aroma generated by vast quantities of books; the professional, dignified presence of the library staff; the muffled sounds of shoes moving slowly across the carpeted floor; and the wonderful mix of natural and artificial light that bathes the main room with its floor-to-ceiling windows.
In the age of the mega-bookstore featuring gourmet coffee and overstuffed chairs, the Catonsville library is a throwback. The amenities are basic to any decent library -- loads of good books, serviceable seating and lots of respectful quiet. Yet, more than any bookstore, the Catonsville library is a major force in sustaining the community of readers in southwest Baltimore County.
Checking out books that must be returned in three weeks, I am reminded of my obligation to my neighbors who cherish books as much as I do. Glancing at the previous due dates stamped on the white label affixed to the back of my selections, I am comforted to learn that others in my community also enjoy William Faulkner, Margaret Atwood, Flannery O'Connor, and Joseph Heller. Borrowing books from the library links me to others in a way that purchasing books does not. The circulation of books through the good efforts of a library is reassuring evidence that a wide range of ideas are circulating through the community.
Over the years, I've discovered that the library is also a great place to write. I love the atmosphere of civility and courtesy that I always find there. The Catonsville library is squarely at the intersection of public service and personal growth. It is amply equipped with high-tech resources but it is the low-tech ambiance that radiates charm.
In February, my wife and I took our two young children to a puppet show as part of the library's Black History Month celebration. Using artfully designed puppets and an amazing range of voices, a young puppeteer from Richmond, Va., brought African fables to life for an appreciative audience of 20 children and assorted parents.
In the reference section, librarians have assisted me on several occasions with a patient graciousness that feels both old-fashioned and luxurious. Recently, as I worked on a writing project, I overheard a literacy volunteer working with an older gentleman at the table behind me. As the printed words blossomed into meaning for him, I could feel the joy and satisfaction in their two voices. It was a wonderful sensation to hear literacy in action.
The Enoch Pratt Free Library is planning to close five of its Baltimore branches by the end of the year and as many as five more by 2006. The decision may be based on sound demographic and fiscal information, but the real cost must be measured in terms of the community spirit and civility that are lost as a library branch closes.
Now that I think about it, the parking problem at the Catonsville library is really a symptom of a very healthy situation. All those cars belong to readers. That full parking lot is really a blessing in disguise.
Stephen J. Stahley, a free-lance writer who lives in southwest Baltimore County, works for the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services in Rockville.
Metro Journal provides a forum for examining issues of concern to the region's neighborhoods and welcomes contributions from readers.