My first experience in the library, at least that I remember, is one from when I was very young, so young that my mother had to hold me up so that I could reach the shelves. She let me pick out a book, and I probably just grabbed one at random. The book was Clementina the Flying Pig, and I thought it was wonderful. I don't know how many times my mother read it to me, but I do know that I checked it out of the library more than once after that so she could read it to me again and again.
The library in Mexia, Texas, at that time was a small building, but it seemed like a big one to me. This was in the days when you took the book to the desk, wrote your name on the library card that was in the holder glued to the first page inside the book, and got the return date stamped on the card. I was far too young to write my name on the card for Clementina, though.
The librarian was Mrs. Armstrong, and she had red hair. She seemed old to me, but she probably wasn't. I know that she had some kind of non-library problems because my parents sometimes talked about her in hushed voices when I wasn't supposed to be listening, and this was the first time I ever heard of "shock treatments." There were other librarians after Mrs. Armstrong, but she's the one I'll always remember best.
In the 1949 Mexia got a new public library, a nice air-conditioned building that was named the Gibbs Memorial Library, thanks to a nice monetary contribution, I suppose. The old library building is still there, though. It's now an Episcopal church, which I think is appropriate.
I loved the Gibbs Memorial Library, and not just because it was air-conditioned. It had a periodicals room where I was able to go and sit in a big red leather chair and read The New Yorker and Time and Newsweek, Boy's Life, The Atlantic, The Saturday Evening Post and a lot of others. I spent hours there. I read just about everything in the children's section of the library, going through all the Bobbsey Twins, Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and Bomba books. Ellery Queen, Jr. was there. The Swiss Family Robinson. Ben and Me. The Twenty-One Balloons. Great stuff everywhere. I remember very well the first time I went into the adult room. The first book I checked out from it was a mystery novel, Samuel Grafton's A Most Contagious Game, and I later bought the paperback just to have it around. I thought it was very exciting and sexy, and it was to a kid who was still not in his teens. Not so much now, though.
And speaking of the children's room, I remember going there with a friend one weekend when we were in college. We sat in little chairs at a tiny table with our knees sticking above the tabletop while we read Dr. Seuss books and laughed so much that the librarian came in and told us to pipe down.
In the summers, the library would have a reading contest. Needless to say, this was right up my alley. I might not win the home-run contest, but I could do okay when it came to reading books. I was right up there with the best of them. The winners in the summer of '54 are there on the right. I don't know the girl on the left, but my sister, Francelle, is next to her, and Melinda Mansell is beside her. The good-looking young chap on the right with the cool shoes and rolled up jeans is, of course, your humble blogger.
That library building is gone now. The gumbo soil in Mexia shifted around so much that it cracked the foundation and the building itself, I think. Now there's a newer library on the same lot where the old one stood. I've been in that one only a couple of times, but I hope some kid is having as much fun there as I did in the older ones.
There were libraries in the schools, too, except for a couple of years when the schools were housed in the First Methodist Church Sunday School building and the First Baptist Church. Those were interesting times, but that's another story. After a couple of years in the churches (my second- and third-grade years), a new school opened. It was in the library there that I made two big discoveries. One was Greek and Roman mythology, and I read every book the library had on those topics. That might sound impressive, but I think there were only two books. The other discovery was one that at the time didn't seem like a big one, but it turned out to be. That was where I found Rocket Ship Galileo, the first book by Robert A. Heinlein that I ever read. The librarian was Mrs. Whitehead, who was the wife of the high-school band director. That's her on the left, I think. I don't have a picture of the high-school library, but it was there that I found Groff Conklin's anthologies The Big Book of Science Fiction and Science Fiction Omnibus which contained stories that have remained with me to this day. Looking at the copyright page, I found out that the stories had originally appeared in magazines, so I went to the local bookstore (yes, we had one in Mexia) and found the first copies of the digest magazines that I ever bought. The bookstore also had two big spinning paperback racks. Wow. It was even better than the library in a way. But I digress.
I got my M.A. at the University of North Texas, which was still North Texas State University at that time, and I had my first carrel there. I spent a lot of time in the carrel reading paperback spy novels when I should've been working on my thesis.
After a year at NTSU, I returned to Austin to work on my doctorate, and now I had a carrel and access to the stacks in the main library there. That was a great time. I found the bound copies of the New York Times Book Review and read every issue that had the "Criminals at Large" column of book reviews by Anthony Boucher. I wrote down the title of every paperback original that Boucher reviewed and tried to track down the book in used bookstores. I located the mystery section of the library, which was quite well maintained. Someone was a fan, and the new books were shelved almost immediately after they arrived. I went through everything there by a good many writers.
I also had a library card at the Austin Public Library, which is where I also found a lot of mystery novels. My best find there, however, was on the table where they tossed magazines that they were giving away. They dumped a huge stack of Life magazines from the 1940s one day, and I took them all.
When I got a job at Howard Payne University, I had an office in the library building. Perfect. And of course I got a card at the Brownwood public library. When I moved to Alvin, I got a public library card here, and I was in the college library every week. Someone there gathered up the paperback books that used bookstores in area didn't want and brought them to the library, which sold them for 10 cents. I was their best customer.
So do I like libraries? You bet I do. I've spent more happy hours in them than I can count. I suspect that some of you have, too. Long may they thrive.