This summer I’ve talked about “my transformation from professor to cli-fi mystery writer” in several Maine libraries with more to come. Being not-from-here, this has given me the opportunity to visit little towns I never knew existed. There are about 240 libraries in the state, so trips to speak and just look around will keep me going for a while.
Travel the U.S. and you’ll find public libraries in the smallest, most out of the way towns. In 1889 Andrew Carnegie built the first one in Braddock Pennsylvania, home to one of the family’s steel mills. Carnegie believed in helping the “industrious and ambitious help themselves”. By 1900 his foundation had made library building a key goal. With extraordinarily generous grants of $10,000, even small towns built impressively large libraries that were formal yet architecturally simple. Many still have a prominent doorway facing the street that welcomes all visitors.
Ask pretty much anyone, especially folks who were pre-computer kids, and you’ll hear wonderful library stories. My husband John remembers that his family home had hardly any books. Not one for nostalgia, he credits his rural Arkansas library for his love of learning and reading. John was the first in his family to finish college, and he went on to get his doctorate in ecology. Poke around a bit and you’ll uncover lots of accounts like that.
In addition to libraries, we venerate the people who run them. A librarian friend recently described the pressure she feels; “At all times, in the library and in town, I must be politically and culturally neutral, nice, and in control. People ask me all sorts of questions in the library and even in the supermarket. They’re disappointed if I don’t immediately know the answer.” (Note to self: Thank a librarian today).
Many authors, of course, love to talk about libraries. Some, like Barbara Kingsolver, even credit them for their writerly success.
“Once it was a very old Kikongo-English dictionary I found in the University of Arizona library’s special collections. It wasn’t supposed to leave the room, but I am persuasive. I said, ‘Something good could happen if you let me borrow this book.’ I took it home; a novel called ‘The Poisonwood Bible’ happened.
This is my thank-you note to every librarian who’s ever helped a kid like me, nobody from nowhere, find her doorway through a library shelf into citizenship of the world. If one of them ever begs you to bend the rules, I’m going to say: Let her do it.”
Others are more succinct but as emphatic.
“When I got my library card, that’s when my life began” –Rita Mae Brown
“Without libraries what have we? We have no past and no future” –Ray Bradbury
“It is the most democratic of institutions because no one – but no one at all – can tell you what to read and when and how.” –Doris Lessing
Even pseudonyms have their say about libraries.
“A good library will never be too neat, or too dusty, because somebody will always be in it, taking books off the shelves and staying up late reading them.”–Lemony Snicket
And, of course, there are the comics.
“If you want to get laid, go to college. If you want an education, go to the library.”–Frank Zappa
“Being a writer in a library is rather like being a eunuch in a harem” –John Braine
For me, walking into a new library is akin to walking into a church. After stepping through the door, I wander in and then look up and around to get a sense of the place. Yes, there’s the children’s area over there, and that set of stairs must lead up to the stacks, the second floor desk, and the reading room. I head for the hushed reading room where literary delights await.
So next time you go into a library, stop, look around, and take it all in.