Sitting in her backyard, mid COVID-19 lockdown, English junior Abby Edgecumbe recognized that her current read, One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, was a little on the nose.
She swears the theming was unintentional but she might never have been able to dedicate the time to the novel under different circumstances. For many, 2020 has been a year for exploring new hobbies, but for her it’s been about rediscovering the old.
“I decided when quarantine first started … that I would use all that time to read everything that I meant to read … I’d be damned if all of that time was gonna be wasted further by it not at least being productive,” said Edgecumbe.
Like Edgecumbe, many college students are finding the time to read for fun again and in some cases, renewing their relationship with public libraries all as a consequence of COVID-19.
Rediscovering the Library
Since July, the San Luis Obispo Public Library has been reopened to the public despite the ongoing pandemic. Emphasizing a more transactional experience, library guests are required to wear masks, limit their stay to no more than 20 minutes and use self-checkout. Library staff has also removed seating and adopted a 24 hour quarantine period for all returned items. Branch Director Aracelli Astorga has been working to create a safe space for people to continue to enjoy the library’s resources.
“We’re seeing about 42% of the traffic we had at this time last year … but the people who are coming in are very appreciative. They’re just glad we’re open,” she said.
Astorga cites a re-established interest in reading as the driving force behind those who are still using the library during this time.
“It’s always served as kind of an escapism, there’s the shutdown, there’s political uncertainty and if you’re looking for a way to escape there’s no better way than a book,” she said.
Despite decreased numbers of visitors, many students have turned to the library as a place of refuge in a time of social distancing measures. After returning for fall quarter, kinesiology junior Talia Bertana turned to the library as a way to pass the time spent indoors.
“I like having stuff to do and during quarantine I think the SLO library helped me find that activity which is just the routine of going picking out books and reading,” she said.
Before the pandemic, reading for college students often meant skimming a textbook chapter for an exam. Reading for pleasure was a distant memory of childhood years past.
“College students get indoctrinated into a college library which is just for studying and … think of reading in a purely academic sphere,” said Edgecumbe.
“We lose kids around college age and I think it’s just because there’s so much else out there. At that young adult age your priorities and energies are elsewhere,” said Astorga.
Students often take on heavy course loads and take time away from studying to engage in social activities. Time at home has allowed students to break past these mental barriers.
“I don’t really read but ever since corona I’ve managed to find the time to do that because I’m not walking to class anymore, I’m at home. The time that I spent doing that I’m using to read now,” said Bertana.
“Sometimes it can be hard because all I really want to do is rest my eyeballs and watch TV or listen to music and stare at the ceiling,” Edgecumbe said. “But I think quarantine made me very appreciative of all the time that I had to read so now even as the school year came up I still constantly feel that urge to get back to that level that I was at before.”
Reflecting on a Love of Reading
For young adults, their relationship with the library may extend back into most formative years of childhood. The nostalgia factor has been a comfort to many during this period of upheaval.
Edgecumbe recalls old men dressed in tweed unfolding the morning paper, an oversized couch covered in stuffed animals and walls lined with books as elements of her hometown library that instilled a lifelong love of reading.
“We took a field trip to the library when I was really little and we went to look in the library and we all got our library cards,” she said. “That library card with my little second grade handwriting signature on the back … stayed in my wallet and that’s what I used for most of my life.”
Bertana has similar memories of childhood trips to the library with her mother.
“In kindergarten that was our thing, we would go and get Starbucks and spend a couple hours [in the library] reading,” she said. “I enjoyed being there because it was a reliable, quiet place with not very many people.”
“I like that we’re a safe space. Some people don’t think of turning to the library for refuge but for a lot of people it is,” Astorga said.
With social distancing measures in place, the San Luis Obispo Public Library has been unable to foster the kind of community that so many have come to associate it with. Astorga laments this change despite it’s necessity.
“I miss people getting excited about just visiting the library, that’s been hard,” she said.
Regardless of the hardships it has faced, the San Luis Obispo Public Library continues to offer an escape to Cal Poly students and the broader community as they reignite their passion for reading.