In honor of the upcoming Read Across America week, and in honor of some advocacy work I’ve been doing for my local library, I’m reposting something I wrote a few years ago.
Please support your libraries. And if you feel so inclined, please support mine.
In the beginning was the Word. In her beginnings, there was a book. Her mother told her she could read before she started kindergarten, and she started kindergarten at age four. Each week, she would walk with her grandmother and older sister the nine or ten city blocks to their local branch of the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library, a low brick building down a side street.
There, she and her sister would settle in the children’s section, while their grandmother browsed through paperback mysteries and Regency romances. She remembers little of that library—windows, low shelves, Ezra Jack Keats’ A Snowy Day, and the front desk, where a stereotypically severe-looking librarian stamped their books with a heavy rubber stamp—ka-thunk!
By the time she was in fifth grade, her mother was in graduate school studying to become an elementary school librarian. Long Saturday afternoons were spent in Lockwood Library at the university: Mom at the copier with piles of coins, sister claiming the best of the blocky chairs available. The options were limited. Ride the elevator up and down, up and down. Run out to the vending machines, having first snatched a quarter from her mother’s towering pile. Quarter in, press F8, curly-cue swivels around, out pops frosted nut brownie. Or, of course, there were the stacks.
Mostly, she spent time in the stacks. One single row of children’s books, books that sported shiny gold Newbery stickers. Somehow she got her hands on a bookmark that listed all the Newbery award winners, and she decided she would read them. Some of her favorite books were Newberies: A Wrinkle in Time, Tuck Everlasting, Bridge to Terabithia, The Westing Game, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. They were quickly joined by Summer of the Swans, My Side of the Mountain, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, The Great Gilly Hopkins, A Ring of Endless Light.
She remembers, though, mostly spending those afternoons with E.L. Konigsburg. Oh, they weren’t on a first-name basis, she and E.L., but nevertheless, she became great friends with Claudia and Jamie, wishing more than anything that she could stay in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, that she could go to an automat (What was an automat, anyway?). She thrilled to the sound of Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth. She gobbled up About the B’nai Bagels, while developing A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver. She even became Father’s Arcane Daughter for a while.
Those Saturday afternoons ceased, but she found other libraries to haunt. She could make a dot-to-dot design on a map of the United States of libraries she has frequented over her lifetime. It would undoubtedly look like an open book. Some of those libraries don’t exist anymore; some of them have expanded. All of them have been important to her. This one is the one she went to in college, studying with her roommates while wearing large hats (to channel the brain-waves, of course). This one she frequented when she was first married, borrowing books with unlikely plots and even more unlikely heroines. That is the one she walked to with her first baby, borrowing books on child development, as well as board books and movies for cheap date nights.
This library, here, was one of her favorites. She brought her toddler there for story time, but also to see the fish in the fish tank, and to work the puzzles on the table, and to borrow picture books to read to him, and CDs to listen to (a compilation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s poems set to music was her favorite). It was there that she returned to her love of children’s literature, often grabbing Anne of Green Gables off the shelf to read while her gingerbread boy played quietly. It was here that she realized she liked children’s literature better than literature for adults.
Now she frequents her current town library, an old schoolhouse built in the 1800s. It is a place where the librarians not only know her name, they know her library card number. She also volunteers in the elementary school library, where she returns dozens and dozens of books back to their places on the shelves. Sometimes, though, she sees a book that catches her eye, and she sits down right in the stacks, caught up in the pleasure of a book, just like she did when she was in fifth grade. Some things never change.