A while back, I was contacted about participating in a local author fair. Not only was I just personally delighted, given how much I love libraries and librarians, but I was just amazed when I saw who had extended this very kind invitation.
The Joliet Public Library, Black Road Branch. In Joliet, Illinois.
Now before I came to live outside Chicago, I grew up in Philadelphia. My father, however, had grown up in Joliet Illinois. His mother, my grandmother, worked at the main branch of the Joliet Public Library for thirty years, retiring shortly after I was born in 1971.
In an interview published in the Joliet Herald-News dated December 26, 1971, my grandmother explained that she'd started as an apprentice at the library, working her first two and a half months without pay! Initially, she mainly shelved books, but was also called on to mend books as well:
"There were no book binders at that time, so when books became damaged by usage and wear, we sewed them by hand. I learned how to build a book from the bottom up."-Josephine Calkins
She left the library in 1936 to get married--my father says she met his father at the library!
After taking coursework at the University of Illinois library school, she returned to the Joliet library in 1953, working in the children's, reference, and adult departments.
From 1956 to 1965, my grandmother was in charge of the library's bookmobile, before becoming an assistant librarian. The experience at the bookmobile, she said, helped her learn about what people liked and disliked, which later informed her purchasing decisions.
When asked to reflect, in December 1971, about what had changed since she first started working at the library, she had this to say:
"A return of the 1930s is reflected in today's reading trends with many requests for books on witchcraft, hypnotism, astrology, numerology and palmistry....We don't have as many male readers in the library today as in the past. There was a time when we couldn't keep enough western books on the shelves...."
I can only imagine what my grandmother would think of current library trends now. Back then, microfiche and microfilm collections as well as "The New InterLibrary Loan Program" were just starting to transform how library patrons could access materials. What would she think of the digital revolution?
Unfortunately, my grandmother passed away in 1987, so we can't know. From what I do remember, she had a deep and abiding love of books, which she passed on to my father and my siblings. I'd imagine she'd be thrilled at the ready access of books and the long reach that modern libraries can attain.
(The other thing I remember about my grandmother was that she taught me to embroider, on one long visit to Philadelphia. While I appreciate that skill, I can't help but wish now she had also taught me how to build a book--a worthy skill indeed!)
As I've mentioned before, I grew up in a house literally lined with books, many of them bequeathed to us from my grandmother. I truly believe that my love of writing stems from my love of reading, a trait inherited from both my parents (my mother was also a librarian).
So I believe it will be quite a moment when I set up my table on Saturday. On one side, my first novel, A Murder at Rosamund's Gate. On the other side, the photos of my grandmother passing out books at the Joliet bookmobile. My parents are even making the trek out! I don't know what to expect exactly, but I'm sure it will be great!
From time to time, I've thought to myself I'd like to find more sports-related books for my children.
Today I opened a care package from my mother. Inside, were the usual niceties she likes to send: activity books for the kids, some little notepads and stickers, some coupons and...a book.
The book was called Winning. A Novel by Robin Brancato.
This book looked familiar to me. I thought, 'Oh, my parents must have found one of my old books up in the attic, and decided to include it in the care package.'
Well, yes and no. It was one of my old books. Inside, was the elaborate scrawl that I used to sign my books with, along with the date I had acquired it. April 9, 1988. In the corner someone had penciled $3.00, so it was clearly bought second-hand from my local Wynnefield Library book sale (remember, the most beautiful library in the world).
I don't know why I had picked it up as a teenager, actually, since I never really liked sports-themed books. As it turned out, though, Winning is the story of a young football player whose life is turned upside down by tragedy, so not a typical sports story at all. Although I only read this one once, it was an extremely compelling read.
But when I left home to go to graduate school in 1993, I remember giving away a bunch of my old books to a local Goodwill, a few towns away from my parent's house in Philadelphia. Winning was one of those books.
In the note I received today, my mother wrote: "We found this book in the Overbrook Train Station Book Swap." The Overbrook train station is just a few blocks from my parent's home in Philadelphia.
So, almost exactly TWENTY YEARS LATER, the book returned to my parents, and they returned it to me. Where has the book been for twenty years? I'll never know.
I do know I will save it for my children to read--I don't think they would have ever read this amazing story otherwise.
But maybe this is just a reminder that sometimes when you throw a question to the universe, you never know how you'll be answered...and perhaps that's the fun of it.
What do you think? Have you ever tossed a question to the universe and seen it answered in strange ways?
Anyone who knows me, knows I love libraries. If I have a few hours to myself, then I'll often find a library (or a coffee shop, these days) to read, write, think.
And during my life, I've certainly had the opportunity to visit some beautiful and impressive libraries--Trinity College Library (Dublin), the British Library (London), the Oxford Library, the Biblioteque Nationale (Paris), the Newberry Library (Chicago), the Free Library of Philadelphia (main branch)...to name a few. And certainly, I live near some lovely libraries now in Highland Park and Lake Forest (Illinois).
But for me, the most beautiful library in the world is the Wynnefield Library, a branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia, located just a few blocks from where I grew up in West Philly. It's not fancy, it's not glamorous--in fact, the modest 1960s exterior has a lot to be desired visually. A gently flowering tree gracing the red brick walls might look to be the library's only beauty. Certainly, no Baroque drama, no Georgian curves here, not even a whit of Victorian indulgence to be found.
Posters like these urged kids to read
The interior is equally simple. If I'm remembering correctly, a main circulation desk greets you when you enter, and just after, the young adult section. Beyond that lay the Adult Reading Room. (I only ventured in there looking for my mother, usually finding her in the mystery stacks. To this day, I'm fairly certain that the area would still feel off-limits to me).
To the left, the children's area awaited.
There, the children's librarians (especially dear Ms. Naismith) knew our names, often greeting us with recommendations and new readings to share. As an inner-city regional branch, I can only imagine now how limited the holdings must have been, how few the copies of popular books, and how few new books ever went into circulation.
Yet, I can remember leaving most days with one, two, three, even up to the maximum twelve books we were allowed to check out on a given day. (Thank goodness it wasn't twelve books total, especially with my--ahem--terrible allergy to returning books on time! I'd never get anything new.) The books were much-handled, many were stained, but I don't remember ever minding their careworn pages.
The library brought us together in ways I can scarcely make sense of now. The librarians didn't just read us stories; they helped us form book clubs, let us put on plays, and stimulated our curiosity in new worlds.
I remembering saying to a librarian once I couldn't find any more good books. She promptly introduced me to Tamara, a girl who lived near me, but whom I'd never met. Tamara in turn introduced me to Louisa May Alcott. Without this introduction, I might never have discovered one of my all-time favorite authors, or found a new friend.
Clearly, the librarians simply loved reading, just as we did, and shared that love of reading with us. We weren't just "patrons" to them (or worse, kids to be ignored). The librarians viewed us as what we were: individuals, thinkers, and above all else, readers.
The Wynnefield Library may not have had much, but in its beautiful humble way, it sustained and nourished a community.
What do you think? What's the most beautiful library?
Historian. Mystery writer. Researcher. Teacher. Occasional blogger.