Laurie(‘s readers) love libraries

Thank you, everyone who sent us a love letter to a library. We had dozens of entries, many of them moving or amusing, or both—and I wish you would all now send your letter to the library in question, to let them know you’re thinking of them.

It was very hard to choose one from all of those great entries. I think I went with the winner because of her picture of the staff: I just couldn’t resist the picture of a Morris dancer, a Stones fan, and a Jungian therapist chatting in the break room.

That entry was from Alison:

The library of my childhood was the Lafayette (CA) Public Library. I read my way through the children’s section, from Ruth M. Arthur to Sally Watson, with stops in between for John Christopher, Patricia Clapp, Arthur C. Clarke, Ingri and Edgar D’Aulaire, William Pene Du Bois, E.L. Konigsberg, Ursula K. LeGuin, Lucile Morrison, and Mary Stolz. As I got older, I explored other parts of the library and discovered Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett, John D. MacDonald and many more. One memorable summer, while I was in high school, I discovered Dorothy L. Sayers; I started with “Murder Must Advertise” and devoured the Lord Peter Wimsey novels.

When I was offered the chance to work at the Lafayette Library as a Library Student Assistant, it was a dream come true. Not only would I get paid for shelving books, I’d get first crack at the newly-returned books (no more waiting for the latest Dick Francis!), and best of all…no library fines!

Once I began working there, I found the true treasure of the library: its staff. There was Barbara, Head Librarian, who arose early every May Day to dance the sun up with her Morris Dance fellows; Susan, the Children’s Librarian, a devoted Oakland A’s fan who had seen the Rolling Stones when they were a pub band back in the early 60s; Linda, the Young Adult Librarian, who was studying to become a Jungian therapist; and many others. I was a confused college student, unsure of what I wanted to do, what I even could do; they mentored me, listened to my stories and helped me with my problems.

Reader, I am now a librarian. While my career has taken many turns, I still remember fondly my first teachers, and am mentor and supervisor for library school students at my university and workplace. The library I read and worked in will soon be supplanted by a gleaming new building, but the old one is evergreen in my memory.

I also loved the entry from Ruth:

I was barely five years old the first time I stepped into a library. I don’t have many memories from that age, but I can vividly recall the feeling of awe I experienced when I walked through the door of the Spring City Public Library. Bookshelf after bookshelf towered over me. I still remember the smell; my first taste of that glorious aroma of thousands of books all in one place. I was afraid to touch anything, so I just looked at the books with my hands folded while my mother filled out a form for a library card. The form was red. I remember thinking that was nice because red was my favorite color that week. (For most of kindergarten I couldn’t decide whether my favorite color was red or blue. It changed weekly. I still have a tough time deciding between the two.)

After she filled out the form, my mom told me to select some books to take home with us. I was dumbfounded: “You mean we can take them home?!” It hadn’t occurred to me that we would be able to take books home with us. I assumed that one was only allowed to read them at the library. My mother explained that I could pick books that I wanted to read, take them home and read them, then return them and pick out more books the next time. By that point, I had decided that the library was the most wonderful place in the world.

The library was literally right around the corner from my home, and my mother and I often took walks to and from the library. When we moved across town when I was eight years old, one of my primary concerns was the fact that we were moving “so far away from the library!” In reality, our new home was only a little over a mile from the library, but compared to turn-the-corner-and-you’re-there, that mile seemed much longer than it actually was. There were many tears until I was reassured that I would still be able to visit the library as often as I wished.

During the summer I turned fifteen, I was spending several afternoons a week at the library working as a volunteer. I loved everything about my volunteer job, but I was especially fond of re-shelving books. I discovered so many new books because of that duty alone. One afternoon I found myself intrigued by a book that I needed to return to the mystery section. Before putting it back in its place, I opened the book to the first page and began to read: “I was fifteen when I first met Sherlock Holmes, fifteen years old with my nose in a book as I walked the Sussex Downs, and nearly stepped on him.” It was literary kismet. I had finished all of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories a few months before, and closing that last book was like losing a dear friend. Finding The Beekeeper’s Apprentice gave me back that friend, but also earned me a new one – a gawky, bookish fifteen-year-old whom I instantly found to be a kindred spirit.

I often wonder if my mother knew, that day when I was five years old, that she wasn’t just handing me a library card. I didn’t know it at the time, but what she really handed me that day was an all-access pass to imagination and information; to books and authors and ideas that would help shape the woman I would one day become.

And this one, from Jillian, paints a great picture of a true library patron:

When I was a young child, about six or seven, I went to a private school so tiny it didn’t even have its own cafeteria, never mind its own library. So once a week, we hopped in vans and commuted to the local one, Waterford Public Library in Waterford, CT. And once off the van, I made a beeline for my favorite aisle; on the right hand side were all the volumes they had on medicine. I think I absorbed every volume they had on dentistry and orthodontics and microbiology and general medicine. And when I needed a break, all I had to do was turn around, and on the other side of the aisle was an oasis of one of my other loves: books about slight-of-hand magic, stage illusions, movie monster makeup. I would grab a stack of books, and trundle them over to my favorite seat, a small couch-like thing hidden in a shelf cul-de-sac—under the mystery section, which I also ransacked.

Come to think of it, I think Holmes might have been just a little bit proud.

And from Edna, the library as a place (and the librarian as a person) far more important than its books:

Alhough it’s been many years since I checked out one of its books, the library of my heart is the Cattaraugus Free Library. In the early ‘60s, when I lived there, Cattaraugus was a village of about 1200 people, and the surprisingly good library was housed in a remodeled bank building. It had the classic old book smell and was run by Mrs. Ida Sager, a widow who lived by herself in a huge house, emptied of her family, on the edge of town. The library was open on Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday; on Saturday I could not carry enough books to last me through to Tuesday. Mrs. Sager quickly noticed the increase in circulation after my family moved to town, and invited me to be a helper. My 12-year-old self was thrilled. I learned how to mend books and helped with circulation chores. Books were checked out on cards, and the cards sorted into Not Due and Over Due boxes, and seriously Over Due books had a paper clip put on their card. It was a day of rejoicing when a “paper clip” was returned.

It was in that library I made the transition to adult books. The first summer I was in Cattaraugus, the library offered a certificate to any child who read ten books, with a red seal for each additional five. When my seals started accumulating too rapidly, Mrs. Sager said I was clearly ready for adult books, and that was all she would count from then on for me. She was right, and I still got enough seals to go all the way around my certificate…not to mention access to the whole wide world.

When my father died, I took refuge in the library from all the church ladies who wanted to sympathize and make me cry. And to help me escape, the next week Mrs. Sager took me with her for her yearly convention at Cooperstown. (It was the first time I had ever been in a place that had a literary connection…and I learned that place is important; not all are alike, imagine that.) Cattaraugus had a lovely custom: instead of sending flowers to a funeral, people bought a book for the library, on a topic or with a theme honoring the dead person. My father had been in the Navy, and people gave books in the Hornblower series, which he had loved.

Mrs. Sager is long dead, and Cattaraugus is in decline…its high school has merged with its once-archrival Little Valley, seven miles down the road. But the library is still there; I found its website,

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  1. strawberry curls on April 19, 2009 at 10:14 am

    Wonderful letters!! Congratulations to Alison for winning.


  2. Wanda on April 19, 2009 at 12:48 pm

    Wow, I can see why you had a hard time choosing one! What wonderful stories!
    Congratulations to Alison, I wish I was closer so I could run in and checkout your wonderful library and it’s interesting characters.

  3. TheMadLibrarian on April 20, 2009 at 9:25 am

    Congratulations to the winners, although I regret now having to wait for my own library to acquire The Language of Bees in its own time (despite my genteel prodding)…:P 🙂

  4. Ruth @ Bookish Ruth on April 20, 2009 at 1:00 pm

    Wonderful stories, all! Congratulations to Alison!

  5. Kerry on April 21, 2009 at 7:03 am

    Great stories – congratulations, Alison!

  6. vickivanv on April 22, 2009 at 1:49 am

    I’m getting verklempt. *sniffles, pulls out hanky* Talk amongst yourselves. *Dabs eyes*

    Congratulations, Alison! 😀

    It’s a good thing I didn’t get to read all the entries–I’m sentimental about libraries and would probably have been reduced to a teary morass!

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