The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Timothy Steele’s lyric poem “The Library” is written in eight stanzas of nine lines each employing an ababccdbd rhyme scheme. The poem describes a person coming out of a university library in Southern California at the end of the day, who is struck by a series of increasingly significant contrasts. While walking out of an air-conditioned library, the speaker is blasted by the hot, dry Santa Ana winds in the heat of the day. He seeks refuge on a bench in the sculpture garden where he begins to compare his world with ancient worlds of Greece and Rome. He thinks how times have changed from handwritten to printed books, now as often on microfilms and disks as on paper. That the wealth of ancient literature was largely lost is a point of regret for the speaker: “Thoughts of the art and science thus destroyed/ Leave me a little empty and unnerved.” Though the poem is about loss, it is not a lament.

Pursuing the personal connection he feels to art and literature, the speaker trusts that “Technology now limits what is lost,” and, he reasons, literature exists best in the minds of living people. He thinks of “The Library as Mind,” an interesting organic concept, but abruptly shifts his attention to the more manageable details of ordinary life.

With careful attention, the sixth and seventh stanzas of the poem move through the tasks associated with closing the library for the night. The speaker pauses to think about the last checkouts from the circulation desk, the turning off of the lights on each of the aisles, and the librarians and staffers, whose days are insulated from their outside cares.

How the present is preserved for the future emerges as another theme of the poem through the last few stanzas as the speaker’s attention is attracted to a squirrel looking for a nut to bury. In the little animal’s “nosing round, compelled to hoard/ By instinct, habit, and necessity,” the speaker sees his instincts, as well as those of the librarians, as keepers of culture to save and protect books and other such artifacts out of habit and the sense that it must be done. Presumably, after putting the pieces together, the speaker goes home.