Libraries I Have Known and Loved

My childhood library, the first library I can really remember, is the Beaverton Public Library, in Beaverton, OR.  Rumor had it that before it was a library, it was a grocery store, and I think that’s probably right, since it had a distinctive grocery store entrance with the double glass automatic doors and that ribbed rubbery entrance step at the front doors.

For a long time, after my parents got divorced, I’d take the bus here after school and sit and wait for two or three hours until my dad came to get me, after his work day was over.  I was supposed to be doing my homework, but I was actually sneaking over to the grown ups section to read all the V.C. Andrews books.

I did love the children’s section at this library too, though.  They had all the Betsy Tacey and Tib books.  They had all the Happy Hollisters books.  They had all the Carolyn Haywood books, all the Anastasia books, and every book by Louisa May Alcott.  This library would serve me well when I got my first bookstore job and it turned out that actually most people do not share this encyclopedic knowledge of children’s literature.  I remain to this day one of the only people I know who has read Eight Cousins.  Not to mention every single Happy Hollister book.

The Beaverton Public Library still used those metal strips in the inside of the book, and I can still remember the rectangular boxes the librarians had to sort of mash the spines back and forth over when they’d check out the books.  I was always cutting my fingers on those stupid metal strips.

I’m not sure this is entirely accurate, but the way I remember it, one of the first things that my mom did after my parents got divorced and my mom got a Portland address was to take me and my brother and sister to the Multnomah County Library.  This is an immense gray old fashioned kind of library right smack in the middle of downtown Portland.  We didn’t actually go there very much, mostly I was still a Beaverton Library kind of girl, and then in high school it was super uncool to hang out at the library, but it was my first encounter with a library with stacks and that sort of blew my mind.  You give them a note? And they go and dig around and bring you back a book? Crazy pants.

The Multnomah County Library also had all kind of neat old library stuff, like a music room with record players and headphones and a rare book room with the big huge Audubon books.  All kinds of weird stuff, paintings you could check out and tools.  I always wanted to check out a painting but we never did.

BFF Sara had a library card at the Lake Oswego Public Library, so we’d end up doing a lot of school projects here, but mostly I remember that this is the library where Sara once had an epic fight with her mother because her mother wouldn’t let her write a paper on Hitler.  She ended up choosing Angela Lansbury instead, and I still think this (FINE! IF I CANT WRITE IT ON HITLER THEN I AM WRITING IT ON ANGELA LANSBURY!!!!) is one of the funniest things of all time.

The first school library I remember is the St. Mary of the Valley library, which is just the sort of library you’d expect to find at an old dignified half convent Catholic school. It was tiny and crammed full of books from floor to ceiling and also contained an ancient crabby nun who shushed us all the time.  We had this strange project in 6th grade where a guest lecturer came and taught us about the library and then told us that our assignment was to catalog every book in the entire library.  Each of us.  Every book. Mass chaos ensued.  We all spent a lot of time in that library. I am not sure anyone actually finished. At the end of it our teacher told us that she couldn’t believe that none of us had thought to split up the job.  We were all pretty dumbfounded at that statement.

This is the library where I first started checking out lurid biographies of the saints’ lives.  Maria Goretti made quite an impression on me, I must say. This is also where I discovered the Romanovs, and I spent the next ten years pretending I was an heir to the Russian throne and declaring my intention to name my future daughter Tatiana.

There was some debate over where I would go to high school, but I ended up conning my parents into letting me go to the cool catholic school, downtown, St. Mary’s Academy.  The whole school was on a hill and the library was on the outer edge of the building, and we’d hear trucks lose their air brakes all the time and come squealing down the hill, horns blasting the whole way down.

For some reason the only other thing I remember about this library is spending an inordinate amount of time writing a history report on perestroika and the fall of communism.  I believe a much tattered copy of Time Magazine with Gorbachov on the front was quite influentual in that epic work.

Halfway through high school I moved to Chicago to live with my mom.  I really was pretty miserable for those last two years of high school, but I could walk from my mom’s house into downtown Naperville, which meant whenever I wanted I could go to the Gap, Walgreens, and the library.  Access to cheap makeup, rayon dresses, and free books? I enjoyed these things.  Mostly, though, I think I checked out cds, which were in the basement of the library.  I think this was the time when to copy a cd you needed two cd drives.  Remember that? You’d put one cd in one drive and the other cd in the other drive and then copy it. Funny.  To this day I think I owe my extensive and possibly complete collection of Cowboy Junkies cds to this library.

The other cool thing about the Naperville Public Library was that they had a bunch of window seats around the edge, so you could go get a book and sit on the carpeted ledge next to the window for as long as you wanted and your mother COULD NOT FIND YOU.  Best library ever.

Then I went off to college (at UCSC) and I don’t remember much about either of the libraries I spent most of my time in.  The main library was this immense thing with big wide staircases and it was steaming hot in there all the time and as you climbed up and up and up it got hotter and hotter.  I can remember being in there and being surrounded by all these books I wished I could have been reading, and instead having to force myself to finish astronomy homework or slog back into Tess of the D’ubervilles and it just felt like I was doing it wrong. Which quite frankly I probably was.

The UCSC Science Library was really close to my apartment freshman year and so I spent a lot of time in there, “studying”.  It was a fancy new science money building surrounded by redwoods with these gorgeous modern red window frames, and full of deep cushy chairs that rolled, so you could push two together, and I fell asleep in those chairs every single time I was in that library. I spent more time sleeping in that library than I did in my own bed, probably. And I think that this was perhaps the first time I really noticed anything about the architecture of a building and how it made me feel and what I thought about it.

When I moved to Ann Arbor to live with Erik, we lived in a little apartment right downtown and we’d walk into work every day because we couldn’t afford the $600 a year parking pass that you needed to park on the Michigan campus.  We’d walk by the library everyday.  That was a nice library. It was the last good library we’d belong to before we moved to Sacramento and I did not appreciate it at all.  I do remember that when you requested books, you had to get them from the librarian, and I did not care for this system in the slightest.  I always felt like they were judging my stack of books.

Oddly, I walked by the Ann Arbor Public Library on my way to work at a different library, the Hatcher Grad Library.  It’s a beautiful big old strange building that sits right on the diag, and the innards of that library are so convoluted with elevators and the stacks and hallways through various places that I never gave anyone directions, I’d just walk them to where ever they were trying to go. It was impossible to explain how to get anywhere, and the stacks were open 24 hours a day and were full of homeless people. And there were three different sets of elevators and I was absolutely convinced that one day I’d either get stuck in one of them or else plummet to my death in one of them.  Never did though.

There are 13 libraries at Michigan, (seriously, it’s a huge school) but the Grad library sits right in the middle of all the action so Erik and I would have lunch together all the time, we’d go get hot dogs at Red Hot Lovers or ice cream at Stucci’s and then we’d walk home together at the end of the day.  It was really lovely. Except when the weird dude was in the diag screaming about Jesus and the end of the world.  But I still look back on those days as a time I didn’t really realize I was just so lucky to be having while I was having it.

The other thing I loved about that library was that my office was right around the corner from the children’s stacks, and I had an hour lunch break, so if it was rainy or Erik was busy I’d go get a book from the YAF section right around the corner and read it for an hour.  I started in the A’s and by the time I left there I had made my way through the entire section, although I never checked any of them out. Ironically I don’t think I even had a library card for that library.  No, I did. Never mind. Anyway, I’d feel worse about messing with the library system except I always reshelved them in the right place and I don’t know that anyone was desperately lining up to check out Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm from the grad library stacks.

Then when we moved to Lincoln, I got a big wake up call.  I have seen worse libraries (foreshadowing) but I was not especially enamored of the public library in Lincoln.  For one thing, they charged 50 cents to request a book, which I thought was a wretched policy, and the library was always surrounded by a certain unsavory population and I don’t know.  The whole thing just felt…off to me.  I did not get that feeling of “Oh yes. The Library. Here I am now.” that I always have gotten when I found the library in all the other places that I have lived.

Although I have said it before and I will say it again.  Given the choice between Redding, California and Lincoln, Nebraska, I would choose Lincoln in heart beat, without a second thought.

The library in Lincoln was not great, it did not feel like my spiritual home the way many other libraries have to me before and after, but I will just say that as soon as we moved to Redding and I got a look at THAT library, I knew that we had to get out of there as the earliest available opportunity, and I realized that I would never move anywhere again without a viable library system.  Never ever ever again.

Libraries and good health insurance.  Two things you never really appreciate until you try to live without them. And I learned that lesson the hard way. And so every single time I take a child to the doctor or I walk out those sliding glass doors with a giant stack of books I requested, I feel gratitude like you would not believe.  And I hope I do for the rest of my life.


20 Responses

  1. This is beautiful. Sigh.

  2. What a lovely essay. I had thought for a while that i might be a librarian; in fact, I was writing out the deposit check to go to Drexel’s library program when I got hired for my first law teaching job, and my life went in a different direction. Libraries and bookstores are among my favorite places on earth.

  3. What I want to know is have you read “Rose in Bloom”, the sequel to “Eight Cousins”? Because if you haven’t, wow, do you have a treat in store!

  4. My favorite library ever is the Bosler Library in Carlisle, PA, BEFORE it was renovated in the late 80s/early 90s. I spent many a day there with my mom and brother in the basement, which was the kids’ section of the library, and I swear it made me who I’ve become today. Love!

  5. I’ve read Eight Cousins too. 🙂 Got it from the library.

    And I also used to go raid the YA books from my college library while I worked there. I am pretty sure I was the only one who did.

  6. This is not really related but I still find it weird that we were in the same town not once but twice, at the same time. Creepy.
    And I loved the Naperville Library, but was mostly relegated to the Lisle library which was dark and depressing but was almost completely empty, which I always preferred in a library (but only before I was a librarian).

  7. I just gave 8 Cousins to my daughter to read! She didn’t want to read Little Women after I gave her the (I felt) obligatory warning about Something Very, Very Sad Happening To Beth. Oh, I loved 8 Cousins AND Rose in Bloom …

    What a lovely essay!

  8. I used to go into the Children’s Lit stacks at the Hatcher library with smuggled-in candy. Then they moved them out of the nice carpeted room into someplace concrete, where I could no longer sit cozily on the floor. I loved that library. Reading Borges while frequenting it gave me very strange dreams.

  9. Oh, I loved the Naperville library. It was the first one I ever had a card to that was All Mine (I was too young when we lived in Elmhurst).

  10. I really loved this post. It, of course, made me recall lots of memories from all of the libraries I have known and loved in my own life. Thank you.

  11. I have very fond memories of going to the library growing up as well as (bizarrely enough) all the hours spent in my college library studying.

    Also, I’ve read Eight Cousins! (And pretty much every thing else she wrote.)

  12. I love this! And libraries. Now that I think about it, when I was a kid, I always dreamed my future house would have an awesome library room in it. With a sliding ladder, of course. It was on all my dream house maps I drew, and I drew a lot. And then I stopped reading, for the most part, when I got a job and a husband, and now I have kids and read only kids’ books, and I should get busy on that library thing! Thanks for reminding me!

  13. Oh, what memories you evoke! Our family had meager means when I was growing up, but we ALWAYS went to the library every week and each of us checked out 6 books. Later, in my Ph.D. dissertation acknowledgements I thanked my parents for that early encouragement to read. I did not mention that, like you, my selections sometimes were, uhm, decidedly not juvenile.

    Oh, and your reminded me of a time in the massive U of Minnesota main library. There was a freshman standing there just sobbing because she couldn’t find her way out of the stacks, saying she was going to drop out of school because she just couldn’t hack the size of the university. I literally took hold of her elbow and steered her through the maze until we reached a stairwell then told her very specifically how to exit the building from there. And i have always wondered whether she stayed in school.

  14. I’m the only one I know who has read all the Happy Hollister’s too! They were my mom’s books when she was a kid and I remember reading them when I was about 8 and thinking they were so great and so old (!) because they had been my mom’s. To this day whenever I hear the word “keen” or “appaloosa” (like a horse) I think of the Happy Hollister books!

  15. I loved this for two main reasons:

    1. I have also read Eight Cousins (and Rose in Bloom); repeatedly, in fact.
    2. I lived in Ann Arbor for 6 years with my husband named… Erik. 🙂 I really liked the A2 library. I live in Atlanta now and the library system, while fine, doesn’t measure up to A2. Making ILL requests here is a pain in the ass.

  16. My first job in high school was as a page (shelver) in our local library. And it was there, at 16, that I knew without a doubt that I wanted to be a librarian when I grew up. And I am.

    (And I have so much love for the Happy Hollisters and all Alcott books. “Little Men” still my all time favorite.)

  17. I spent a year or two post divorce at the library, waiting for my mom ’cause I was too old for daycare. Lots of reading, then. And UCD grad, for all the good it’s done me… Probably because that was the one library I did NOT visit often enough. Wow – can you say memory trigger? Thanks for that!

  18. Love this post! Libraries and children’s lit are two of my favorite things. My mother worked at a library when I was growing up. The librarians let me preview a lot of new books before the went on the shelf. Now with two boys, I’m enjoying kid’s books all over again. I need to look up the Happy Hollister books though.

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