It’s National Library Week so I would feel remiss if I didn’t do more than simply take note of it. The theme this year is “Create Your Own Story @ Your Library” but I’m actually going to go back to an old (and increasingly older) one.
This picture is of a place where a deep and abiding love and respect began. It is the old Carnegie Library in my hometown. Although the picture dates to some 50 years before I was born, the building was still the city library in the years before my age hit double digits. I still consider it one of the most important buildings in my life.
It’s hard to see in the picture, but under the stairs on the left was another set of stairs. They led down to the what was the children’s (pre-teen) section when I was a kid. Because of the main staircase, these steps were dark and cool and probably a bit intimidating when I was very young. I couldn’t tell you how old I was the first time I went down those steps but I do remember my mother accompanying me on several occasions. I also know it was a trip I would make dozens and dozens of times, always with great anticipation, knowing I was about to enter a place unlike any other in my world. I have no doubt I was thrilled when my parents considered me old enough to walk or ride my bike to the library by myself.
Maybe because I had the good fortune to have parents who encouraged reading, I was always excited to go to the library and somewhat awestruck by the concept there was this huge (to my eyes) room filled with books I could read for free. Bolstering it all was the thought there were tons of books in the main section of the library I could explore when I got older. My relation to “my” part of the library was akin to Norm and the Cheers bar. All the children’s librarians knew me and I was a regular. Yes, I was addicted but it was the best addiction a kid — or anyone — could have. I have relatives who say what they remember about me as a kid is that I was always reading a book. Of course, it didn’t hurt that the library was only five blocks from my home and two blocks from the elementary school I attended.
I particularly loved the summer reading programs. It wasn’t enough to say you read a book; the librarian would ask you to give a brief report on it. And, depending on the book, you might even get a couple questions you could answer only if you read it as opposed to skimming it. I devoured books by the armful during the summer — and the location was great on those hot, humid summer afternoons in an era before central air conditioning was common. My routine many summer days was to hit the parks or play a little baseball in the morning and early afternoon and then revel amidst the cool and books of the library at mid-afternoon.
When I was 10, the library moved to a new, larger building. While I loved its long rows of bookshelves, part of me always yearned for — and still does — that feeling of heading down the steps of the Carnegie Library into a space largely illuminated by the lights shining through the door to the children’s section. I can’t claim that mystique alone encouraged and built my love for reading. What I do know is that the library was always a positive influence and were it not for that children’s section at the Carnegie Library I would not be who I am today. There aren’t very many institutions that can play such an important role in a person’s life.
The only true equalisers in the world are books; the only treasure-house open to all comers is a library.
John Langford, The Praise of Books