At a moment when the future of the 42nd St public library in New York is being hotly debated, and more than a dozen libraries in Miami slated to close, it seems to be a good time to meditate on the public library and its meaning in a rapidly changing era. Thanks to Barbara Olwig, one of the members of Central Library’s own STL Scribblers group, for contributing this piece about her own library experiences, past and present. More of Barbara’s work can be read at her blog, Today in Herstory.
My First Library Card
Sitting in the Carpenter branch of the city library system on Saturday, I was startled to hear a woman’s voice making an announcement on … an intercom?! At the library?
Although I realize that the hushed, and rabidly enforced, silence of my childhood library has gone the way of card files and paper pockets glued inside each book, I just wasn’t prepared for such a blatant intrusion into my sotto voce space.
But change is good, right? Today’s librarians no longer resemble yesterday’s stern, scary denizens of the Dewey Decimal System, who could organize shelves as fast as they could boot a rowdy reader out the door. And today’s library offers a much more welcoming, more user friendly environment for its patrons.
Much different than the library of my childhood. In my mind’s eye, I can still see the dark oak doors that opened into a chill, dimly lit foyer. When I was five, my father took me to there so I could get my own library card. The awe I felt about that library vastly exceeded anything I felt sitting in our parish church on Sunday morning. (And the sanctuary I found throughout my troubled childhood in a stack of books was to become a steady source of spiritual comfort.)
A polished wooden counter taller than me stood to the right of the doors, presided over by an older woman who fixed me with a gimlet eye, as if daring me to explain why I was entering her fiefdom of fiction and fact.
It seemed like forever before she was stretching her Ichabod Crane-like body over the counter in my direction, holding in her hand a piece of green pasteboard with a thin strip of metal embedded in one corner. As far as I was concerned, what she was handing me was the key to a magical kingdom.
(Arcimboldo, The Librarian, 1566)
That visit was the start of a bi-weekly trek that my oldest sister, Connie, and I would make from home to the library and back. We each left the house with an armload of books and we returned with a similar load. To leave the library without borrowing the maximum number of books just wasn’t done.
I still smile when I recall something I did when I was eight years old. We were leaving on a family camping trip that would last longer than two weeks. My mother specifically instructed me to return my library books and come home empty handed. Any books I checked out would be overdue by the time we got home and my mother was a stickler about avoiding overdue fines.
Once I got to the library, though, the thought of leaving without a book became harder and harder to accept. In my bookworm-addled brain, disobeying my mother ranked as less of a sin than leaving The Five Little Peppers sitting on a shelf.
On the walk home, I realized I couldn’t just breeze through the back door with my contraband in hand. So I slipped the book into the waistband of my cotton shorts, tugged my thin shirt over the top of it and boldly stepped into the kitchen to be greeted by mother – who took one look at the book’s outline under my shirt and sent me right back out the door.
Luckily for me, my mother was an avid reader, too. And even though she meted out a punishment for disobedience when I returned home (yes, empty handed) somehow I knew that, in her heart, she completely understood.