December 17, 2017

A Personal History of Libraries

John Scalzi at the Movers and Shakers luncheon

John Scalzi, speaking at the 2013 Movers & Shakers Lunch at the Firehouse Restaurant in Chicago.
Photo by Jean-Marc Giboux / AP Images for Library Journal.

When science fiction author, past Science Fiction Writers of America president, and noted blogger John Scalzi spoke at LJ‘s Movers & Shakers luncheon during the 2013 American Library Association (ALA) Annual conference, part of his address consisted of reading aloud from his Personal History of Libraries. It moved many in the room to tears—including Scalzi himself—and concluded with his thanks to libraries for their influence on his life and others.

In honor of Thanksgiving, and with his permission, LJ reprints the piece below. It originally appeared on Scalzi’s blog Whatever in February.


The first library I ever remember visiting was the library in Red Bluff, CA. I was five at the time, and living with my aunt while my mother was recovering from surgery. I remember the children’s area of the library, and in my recollection of the place today, the rows of books went all the way up to the ceiling. I remember specifically, although not by name, a picture book a pulled down from the rows, about children leaping for the moon. It was explained to me that I could take the book home—and not just that book, but any book I wanted in the entire library. I remember thinking, in a five year old’s vocabulary, how unbelievably perfect. I took home a book about stars, which started a life-long love of astronomy.

The second library I have a strong memory of was the Covina Public Library, in my then hometown of Covina, CA. My mother and then-stepfather worked all day and I would walk or bike to the library most afternoons, and read magazines and look through reference and trivia books. I also remember specifically spending a lot of time with a book about dragons.

I remember the library at Ben Lomond Elementary School, also in Covina. It was there I first made the acquaintance of Robert Heinlein, in a library-bound edition of Farmer in the Sky. It was the start of a beautiful relationship.

At the West Covina library, I discovered that one could borrow LPs and listen to them at turntables in the library! I remember sitting in a chair, next to a turntable, headphones on, listening to Bill Cosby LPs and giggling as quietly as I could (it was a library) while simultaneously flipping through a Time-Life book called The Planets, written by one Carl Sagan.

The library in Glendora was where I stayed in the afternoons when my now-divorced mother worked. I would sit in the just outside the kids’ area, eating Jujyfruit candies (you could buy a whole big box for 49 cents at the Ralph’s just down the street), reading what were called “juvies” then and are called “Young Adult” books now. It was the first place I was exposed to a real live computer: A TRS-80 Model III. I remember programming the computer in BASIC to play simple games. It was there I met Mykal Burns, who was (and remains) one of my best friends. I also met—actually met, not just in a book—Ray Bradbury there, which to me was something like meeting a wizard.

The library at Sandburg Middle School is where I would be in the early morning before school started, reading science fiction and rushing through my homework. It was also the scene of some of my greatest junior high triumphs, as I participated in a school-wide “science bees” staged there, for the Red team (the school divided alphabetically into colors), and would single-handedly utterly slaughter entire opposing teams. All those years of checking out trivia and science books paid off with a vengeance.

At the Thomas Jackson Library at the Webb Schools of California I met Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, James Thurber, Harold Ross—heck, the whole of the Algonquin Round Table—plus Ben Hecht, H.L. Mencken, P.J. O’Rourke, Molly Ivins and Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Stoppard, and George Bernard Shaw. In the science fiction section I was introduced to Robert Silverberg, Larry Niven, and Ursula K. LeGuin. Here was where I discovered many of the writing idols of my youth.

The University of Chicago unsurprisingly had many libraries; the one I spent the most time in was the Harper Library, where the University kept most of its fiction. The space these days would remind people of Hogwarts, I suppose; at the time I thought of it like a cathedral, filled with books, and also, very comfortable cushions to read (and, sometimes, nap) on.

When I left the University of Chicago, my relationship with libraries changed, because my position in life changed. I had a job and money, and for me that meant I could buy books. So I did: I bought new books by the authors I was introduced to in the library, and bought the old books that checked out so many times from the library, because now I could afford to own them. I bought books on the subjects I first became interested in by wandering through the library stacks. I bought as gifts the books I had grown to love and wanted others to love, too. I had become a fervent buyer of books because libraries made it easy to become a fervent reader of books—to make them a necessary part of my life. For about a decade I didn’t use the library much, because I was in the bookstore. It was a natural progression.

I remember the library in Sterling, VA, because that was where I lived when I got my contract for the very first book I would have published: a book on online finance. As part of my research for writing the book, I went to the library and checked out just about every book on finance they had, to see how those authors had written on the subject, and to make sure I didn’t have any obvious gaps in my own knowledge of the subject. When it was published I went back to the library and was delighted to find my new book there too. And it had even been checked out! More than once! I felt like a real author.

Finally I arrive at my present library, the one in Bradford, OH. It’s a small library, but then, Bradford is a small community, of about 1,800. For that community, the library holds books, and movies, magazines, and music; it has Internet access, which folks here use to look for jobs and to keep in contact with friends and family around the county, state, and country. It hosts local meetings and events, has story times and reading groups, is a place where kids can hang out after school while their parents work, and generally functions as libraries always have: A focal point and center of gravity for the community—a place where a community knows it is a community, in point of fact, and not just a collection of houses and streets.

I don’t use my local library like I used libraries when I was younger. But I want my local library, in no small part because I recognize that I am fortunate not to need my local library—but others do, and my connection with humanity extends beyond the front door of my house. My life was indisputably improved because those before me decided to put those libraries there. It would be stupid and selfish and shortsighted of me to declare, after having wrung all I could from them, that they serve no further purpose, or that the times have changed so much that they are obsolete. My library is used every single day that it is open, by the people who live here, children to senior citizens. They use the building, they use the Internet, they use the books. This is, as it happens, the exact opposite of what “obsolete” means. I am glad my library is here and I am glad to support it.

Every time I publish a new book—every time—the first hardcover copy goes to my wife and the second goes to the Bradford library. First because it makes me happy to do it: I love the idea of my book being in my library. Second because that means the library doesn’t have to spend money to buy my book, and can then use it to buy the book of another author — a small but nice way of paying it forward. Third because I wouldn’t be a writer without libraries, hard stop, end of story. Which means I wouldn’t have the life I have without libraries, hard stop, end of story.

I am, in no small part, the sum of what all those libraries I have listed above have made me. When I give my books to my local library, it’s my way of saying: Thank you. For all of it.

And also: Please stay.

In lieu of his reprint fee, Scalzi asked LJ to make a donation to a literacy charity; it went to 826 National, which this year won the inaugural Library of Congress American Literacy Award. 826 operates storefront writing and tutoring centers in the guise of The Greater Boston Bigfoot Research Institute, Chicago’s The Boring Store (definitely not a spy outlet), DC’s Museum of Unnatural History, LA’s Time Travel Mart, Michigan’s Liberty Street Robot Supply and Repair Store; New York’s Superhero Supply Store, Seattle’s Greenwood Space Travel Supply Co., and San Francisco’s Pirate Supply Store.



  1. Bravo! I also had the great good fortune to have libraries available. My grandfather owned a building that he leased to the LA County library system, and I would spend a couple of hours a night several nights a week reading magazines and books. When I was older, I helped my father clean that same library. Once my dusting was completed, I’d either sneak peeks at the Kinsey reports – always hidden away under the counter – or lie in the librarian’s office reading SF until my father was done. I even worked in the library at my junior high school.

    To this day I’ve used libraries to find books I might want to buy. I rarely have fewer than three books out at any one time – eight at the moment – but there is always a growing list of wants, always among them Mr. Scalzi’s.