Thursday, April 21, 2016

Libraries and Me

Lesa of Lesa's Book Critiques is to blame for this post, since she was talking about libraries a while back.  I've posted little bits and pieces about libraries here and there, but I hadn't thought about devoting a whole post to them.  Now's the time, though.

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. 

When I went to college, I found the main library at The University of Texas at Austin to be a wonderful place.  I wish I had a photo of the card catalog, which took up two long walls.  It's probably gone now, more's the pity.  Undergraduates weren't allowed in "the stacks," so we had to check out books at the big front desk.  We'd fill out a slip of paper, give it to the person behind the desk, and a flunky would be sent for the book.  I spent a lot of time in what was then called the "periodicals reading room," a place that had an almost infinite number of magazines.  I liked to read the ceiling beams almost as much as I did reading the magazines.

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.


Lesa said...

Bill, I'll take the blame! Thank you for such a nice post about your experiences and love of libraries.

Jeff Meyerson said...

Great post!

My experience with the Hunter College library sounds very much like yours. I took several drama courses and read literally hundreds of plays, including all of two very different writers - Noel Coward and Eugene O'Neill. I was using the card catalogue daily for my history courses and taking out dozens of books by and about Ellen Glasgow for an English class.

In fact the librarian thanked me for their high circulation rates.

August West said...

Those "cool shoes" sure look like Chuck Taylor All-Stars.

Unknown said...

Back in 1969 in Mineral Wells, Texas we lived next door to a blind woman named Mrs. Woodruff. The story we were told her husband donated most of the money that funded the Boyce Ditto Public library. I was doing some research on Mineral Wells & called the current librarian, she confirmed that Mrs. Woodruff at one time had been a librarian there.

She was a very nice lady as I remember & set out a table of candy on Halloween with a note on the honor system as she could not answer her door. I think if you want to make an impact on other people's lives, you can't go wrong being a librarian.

Unknown said...

You got that right, Victor.

Deb said...

One theme that goes through your essay, the comments, and Patti's similar post from a few days ago is that even small communities used to be proud of their libraries and maintained and stocked them with knowledge and love. Last year, our community voted down (by some astonishing amount--I think the No vote was over 70%) a tiny increase in millage to maintain our local library system. Some people are so short- sighted. Sigh.

Unknown said...

Libraries in Texas have to fight for every penny. I was on the board of our local library for years, and I know how hard it is.

Jeff Meyerson said...

Jackie worked with this [dim bulb] woman (whose husband was also a teacher) whose fairly affluent community on Long Island voted down funds for the library too.

Cheap, shortsighted b@stards.

Dan said...

Someone said a little while back:

"I'm glad we already have libraries; can you imagine trying to get them set up in today's political climate?"

Martin Edwards said...

A terrific post, Bill. Last night I gave a talk at the very first library I ever joined, as a small boy. A nostalgic pilgrimage, and a reminder of how much I have gained from libraries over the year, something I'm sure is true of almost all writers as well as readers.

Don Coffin said...

Wonderful history of you and your libraries. It made me think about my library experiences (which I don't remember as well as you do yours, but which I may have to write up, if only for myself. Sadly, libraries are no longer an important part of my life. That sort of began when I was living in Chicago, in a period in which the Chicago Public Libraries were buying next to nothing...although the magnificent Harold Washington Library building got built, the most recent mystery novels there were old...10 or more years old...I'm back in Indianapolis now (where I grew up); the library system is woefully underfunded. The center-city branches are closing--partly because the population has decentralized so much--and the suburban libraries just don't seem as welcoming. Or maybe I'm just getting old.

Unknown said...

I've never figured out how the UT library got the new mysteries on the shelves so quickly. It was almost as if I'd read a review in Boucher's column one week and find the book shelved the next week.