At the beginning of Chapter Two in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, the main character – Francie Nolan – goes to the library on a hot summer day. The chapter opens with “The library was a little old shabby place. Francie thought it was beautiful. The feeling she had about it was as good as the feeling she had about church.”
The story goes on with describing how Francie thought that all the books in the world were in that library and she had a plan about reading every one of them.
Maybe this is why I identified so much with Francie when I read this book, even though my life was very different from hers. I wanted to read every book I possibly could. And libraries were places of almost spiritual inspiration. I loved the hush in a library (especially coming from a household of eight). I loved the orderliness, the smooth-edged tables, the smell of old bindings. I loved coming into a cool semi-darkness after the hot bright summer day. And, of course, I loved the books.
There was everything there! Every adventure you might ever want, every place you might ever go, every bit of knowledge you might ever need. There were the tall stacks of non-fiction books, the heavy leather-bound runs of reference books in red or brown or dark blue, fascinating-looking adult fiction, and the children’s section, crammed with favorite authors and those who might become favorites.
When I was almost nine years old, my family moved from Dearborn, Michigan, to Farmington, Michigan. Our new library was further away, about a mile and a half down a highway, rather than just a few blocks. However, there were sidewalks all the way and it wasn’t long before my sister and I were allowed to ride our bikes there.
I got a new bike for my birthday that summer, with a pair of wire baskets that hung saddlebag style on either side of the rear wheel. They were perfect for carrying library books, because the sides were taller than a front basket would have had, and the books couldn’t bounce out. My sister eventually lost interest, but I spent each summer from then on, bicycling to the library, my ‘spent’ books filling the baskets on the way there, my new adventures filling the baskets on the way back. The road to the library had a slight incline, so I had to peddle hard to get there but could coast all the way home. What a lovely experience it made, flying down the sidewalk with a new batch of books!
(Another book that lovingly describes kids going to the library in the summer is Seven Day Magic by Edward Eager).
Later, in high school, I got a job working at this same library. It had been built in the early sixties and was typical of the architecture of the times – a low shoebox shape with horizontal bands of windows, very streamlined but not cold-looking. Lots of light-colored wood bookshelves, tables, chairs, and of course, the librarian’s desk, with its slot for returned books. I worked there evenings and Saturdays all through my junior year. A couple of years later, a new library was built and this one closed. I just never felt the same affection for the new library, even though it was bigger and had more books.
After we moved to North Carolina, the local branch library in Sherrills Ford offered the same kind of culture shock as we were experiencing everywhere else. There was a huge difference at that time between life in the rural south and life in the Detroit suburbs. The library was a tiny, dark building where the books all seemed to be old and rarely disturbed, except for the rows of well-thumbed paperback romance novels. Just one step above a bookmobile. I don’t remember it having a children’s section, but it must have. It was so tiny, that you could basically just come and check out books, but not hang around. I did, however, chatting up the sweet old lady who ran the place during the few hours it was open.
A few years later, thankfully, they built a newer branch library in an interesting angled building with a hexagonal children’s area. I went there regularly, and when my children came along, took them to Story Hour during the summer. This was run by Mrs. Jane Cockman, a delightful person that the children just adored. We mothers who brought our kids also enjoyed being there and socializing a bit. It can sometimes be isolating to be a stay-home mother unless you live in a neighborhood with many more of the same, which I didn’t. So Story Hour was an event to look forward to, especially if followed by a trip for ice cream cones.
(Above, my kids at Story Hour, listening to Miss Jane read a book. Katie is the little girl with the butterfly shirt all the way to the left, and Becky is in the center, in dark blue & white print. Danny is beyond Becky. All you can see is his ear and his dark brown hair.) (Elder daughter Joanna was in her teens by this time, so she didn’t come along.)
All my kids learned to enjoy books. Our daughter Katie even decided to write a newsletter, which the kids distributed among our neighbors. One memorable article was all about the neighborhood dogs, identified by breed and markings, and listing their names, their owners, and the dogs’ enthusiasm (or not) toward playing with the kids. Katie and her friend Karina went on to write, direct and produce two or three Christmas plays as well, drafting the younger kids as actors, costume designers and stagehands. A good time was had by all.
Sometimes I made the trip to the county’s main library, in the town of Newton, about twenty miles away. They had a much better non-fiction selection and a special room with books about the history of the county and state. I went there when my kids were in daycare (two mornings a week, my mental-health days). By this time I had begun really studying history, starting at first with my home encyclopedia set, and later turning to more complete resource material. This was part of my effort to get a little mental stimulation. I loved being an at-home mother, but at times, I could feel my brain turning to mush. (Anyone ever see the move Mr Mom?)
Later I went through a long stretch of rarely visiting the library and going to the Barnes & Noble bookstore instead. It was a longish haul, twenty-five miles, but at least no library fines for overdue books! I didn’t get to go regularly, but when I did, it was considered worth at least a half-day outing.
Then, a few years ago, I began going regularly to the libraries in Denver, NC, and Lincolnton, NC, because one hosts the book club I joined, and the other hosts the Writers’ Group of which I’m a member. So both these places have become more a place of community for me, rather than a cathedral of books, even though our discussions are all about the written word. And I love them for that, for what they offer me – a place where like-minded souls gather to talk.
Finally, whenever I get the occasional chance, I like to visit the libraries of large cities. I’ve been to the main libraries in Philadelphia and Boston and Huntington Beach. These soaring beautiful buildings, full of history and art and architectural interest, overwhelm me – even beyond all the amazing books. I suppose if I could visit them regularly, I’d grow accustomed, but short visits make my head spin. In a good way.
In my fantasy life, I live near the old Reading Room of the British library near St. Pancras rail station. It was a classic, and is lovingly described in the book Possession by A.S. Byatt, but it’s gone now. I missed my chance. There’s a new Reading Room, but it’s just not the same. I’m not really a fan of new libraries. They’re too bright, too roomy, and their books are way too new. Many have rows of computer desks now, instead of reference books. Which is proper, I suppose, to serve the needs of today’s users, but they’ve lost all their mystery for me. I miss the rows of old leather or cloth book spines, and what they used to call ‘library binding’. Everything now is slickly wrapped in plastic. There’s no texture. And at the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon, I’ll stop here. At least I have my happy memories of the libraries I have loved.