An Ode to Libraries

Katherine Hall Page at the Sedgwick, Maine library

This week, Maine Crime Writers are celebrating National Library Week with a series of posts for our Maine librarians. Today, we lead off with an author who has deep Maine connections and a deep love for libraries–Katherine Hall Page

Henry Ward Beecher, brother to Harriet, wrote: “A library is not a luxury but one of the necessities of life.” My first library was housed in an old farmhouse in Livingston, New Jersey. Today, the town I grew up in bears little resemblance to the small, farming community it was in the early 1950’s when we moved there. The children’s room in the Livingston Public Library had been the kitchen and although it wasn’t in use, the old cook stove was still there. Removing it would have been quite a project. I worked my way around the kitchen walls reading about the March family, the Moffats, All-of-a-Kind Family, Ballet Shoes and the other shoes, Misty of Chincoteague and the other horses, and all the Landmark books.

When I was about nine, I had exhausted the kitchen’s offerings and Ruth Rockwood, the librarian, allowed me to enter the parlor and dining room—the adult section! Books did not line the walls here, but were arranged in floor to ceiling stacks. Each week Mrs. Rockwood would pick out a book for me to take home and read. The first was A Lantern in Her Hand, a tale about a Nebraska pioneer woman written in 1928 by Bess Streeter Aldrich. I loved it and after reading that canon progressed to Frances Parkinson Keyes (including Dinner at Antoine’s, her only mystery), and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings—Mrs. Rockwood’s favorite authors, I assume. My home was filled with books and Ruth Rockwood didn’t instill my love of reading, but fanned the flames. What she did instill was a lifelong passion for libraries and librarians.

I was a library aide with my friend, Ellen McNaught in our high school library. We never minded shelving books, since we got to see what had just been returned, discovering Conrad Richter —The Trees, such a great book— and Mary Stewart’s Madame, Will You Talk?, which took us to the others of this vastly underrated writer. Even now, I gravitate to the “To Be Shelved” or “Recent Returns” in my town library. It’s like a smorgasbord.

Chase Emerson Memorial Library, Deer Isle

When my family started going to Deer Isle in 1958, it didn’t take me long to discover the Chase Emerson Memorial Library in Deer Isle village, and the Stonington one as well. Between them I was able to read all of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s books as well as Angela Thirkell’s—and the views out the library windows were best of all.

Touring Wellesley College before applying, I was struck by the beautiful lakeside setting and Professor David Ferry’s poetry class with his recitation of Yeats’s “Lake Isle of Innisfree” was inspiring (I was ready to “Arise and go” right then and there wherever Professor Ferry might lead); but it was the library that sold me. The Rare Books Room actually has the door to 50 Wimpole Street with the brass letter slot through which Robert Browning slipped missives to Elizabeth Barrett! During exam times we used to try to get locked in the library overnight by hiding in the lavatories. The “libe” closed at an hour presumably intended to give us a decent night’s sleep. The custodian always discovered us, but before he did there was a delicious sense of being almost alone with all those marvelous books.

Librarians are my favorite people and libraries, my favorite places to be. I’m a member of six Friends of the Library groups. I enjoy giving talks at libraries, especially at meetings of the American Library Association, the Public Library Association, State Library Associations—what’s the collective for “librarians”, as in a pride of lions, “a tome?” “a volume?”—library book festivals or fundraisers where patrons whoop it up all for the sake of words.

The access to libraries, and therefore information, that we enjoy in this country is rare worldwide. Simply walk in, check out a book or some other material, use their computers with no questions asked, no fee required, and nothing under lock and key. In addition to their roles as providers, librarians are also protectors.

They’re a feisty bunch. I’ve always thought so, even before the librarian action figure came out. It’s modeled on Nancy Pearl, the Seattle librarian author of Book Lust and More Book Lust. The figure’s hand comes up to her lips to shush patrons, a gesture I have never seen a real librarian use. More accurate would have been a librarian waving an arm in protest. In my mind’s eye, I envision librarians atop barricades, protecting our civil liberties, guarding our rights to privacy, and unbanning books. Read Marilyn Johnson’s This Book is Overdue: How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save us All, then go thank a librarian. Better yet, hug one.

Ultimately librarians are matchmakers. They introduce us to new authors and subjects. They connect us with needed information—on average reference librarians in this country answer 8 million questions a week!— and, if we like, will teach us how to find it ourselves. They embrace new technology and draw us in, as well. Traveling to libraries all across the country, I have been reminded how they also function as gathering places. I take immense comfort in the fact that there are more public libraries in the U.S. than McDonalds. New libraries have auditoria that are available to community groups for meetings and events. Comfortable places to sit and read, yes, but many libraries are adding cafes where patrons can meet for coffee. I love small libraries, especially the ones with window seats, but I admit to detours whenever I’m in Boston to see the McKim courtyard and Sargent murals at the main Public Library—the oldest municipal public library in the country and the largest—and when in Manhattan head for the Rose Reading Room at The New York Public Library, pausing outside on Fifth Avenue to pat one of the stone lions, “Patience” and “Fortitude”.  Our jewel is the crown is, of course, The Library of Congress—again unique in the access it provides and its preservation of books and documents. (There is still a card catalogue as a backup to the Virtual one). The Great Hall is splendid. Participating in a panel at the library was an honor and memory I will always hold dear.

The Body in the Piazza

Libraries have functioned as centers of learning since Alexandria, but now more than ever in these economic times, they are providing instruction that individuals cannot afford to take elsewhere. 68% of Americans have library cards. Courses in ESL, literacy, computer literacy, taxes, writing of all sorts, and book groups for every taste are standard fare. Andrew Carnegie suggested “Let There Be Light” with the rays of a rising sun be set in the stone above the entrances to his free libraries. It’s as apt now as it was in the 19th century. Yes, librarians are keepers of the light as well as matchmakers— and it’s a match made in heaven.


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7 Responses to An Ode to Libraries

  1. Deanna says:

    My small town library is the best place in town! Dee

  2. Lovely post, Katherine. On that locked in the library thing? One of the nicest parts of my seven year stint at the U Maine Farmington library was having my own key. I was the only staff (with work study students) on Saturdays and often went in early just to enjoy the experience of having the whole library to myself.

  3. Lea Wait says:

    So many of your experiences echo mine, Katherine .. including being a “page” at my local library in high school .. which was in Glen Ridge, New Jersey .. not far from yours, in Livingston. Summers at the Wiscasset Library, where now their archives yields plots and clues for my historical novels. Libraries in historical societies, like Maine’s, in Portland, where treasures abound. Libraries, and the Dewey System that was the key to those treasures, was such a part of me that I remember with dismay my introduction to the Bobst Library at NYU. I did my graduate work there – and was granted my own tiny room to actually leave books in – but I never did master their organization system. But, oh! The books that were shelved there. We owe so very much to libraries.

  4. Katherine,
    My own personal favorite is the little seasonal library down on Hancock Point, an odd little octagonal building with a small wing to each side, one for kids, one for grown-ups. I also have a soft spot for the Ellsworth library, which is of course quite a lot bigger.

  5. John Clark says:

    I love this post (but I might have a wee bias ). One of the best parts of being a librarian is watching the fire kindle in a youngster’s eyes when they get their own library card. It is, for many, the very first thing THEY own and no one can take it away from them. We have had numerous pre-teen and teen volunteers work at the Hartland Library and the one thing that amazes every one of them is how many things they check in and realize they want to read. I tell kids that having a library card is akin to having a rich relative drop you off in front of a bookstore, hand you a credit card and say; “See you later, have fun.”

  6. Barb Ross says:

    Thanks so much for coming Katherine, and helping the Maine Crime Writers celebrate National Library Week!

  7. (of course I’m biased being a librarian) but thank you for writing so eloquently about books and libraries!

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