I had so many comments about a meme post that I wrote about growing up in a village library that I thought I would write a small series about my memories of it.
The best thing to do would be to start at the very beginning and describe the Moweaqua Public Library to you. I've searched through volume after volume of family photographs, and I haven't been able to find one single shot of that library, so I'm forced to spin a word picture, using the photo above as a reference point. In this photo, I'm six years old and standing in front of our apartment on Macon Street. At that time, Moweaqua had a population of roughly 1800 people. We all knew everyone, and no one locked their doors. Immediately to the left of the brick archway is another door: the back entrance to the dentist's office. Sometimes folks would be a bit confused. I'd hate to tell you the number of times someone would show up for their appointment and walk up on our porch, open the door, and step right on into our walk-in closet. It wasn't until they got lost in the kerfuffle of coats, shoes, boots and dresses that they'd get the idea that they might not be in Doc Foster's office.
Doc Foster's office was on the corner of Macon and East Main Street. To get to the library, all Mom and I had to do was turn right, walk past the front of the dentist's office, on past the firehouse, and we were at the library. (To this day, I still prefer a short commute to work.) There was a big iron step up to the door, and I quickly learned never to step on that thing in the summer when I was barefoot. Yee-OUCH! Right inside the door was a tiny vestibule, a door to the left that led to the Town Hall and a door to the right that led to the library.
Mom became the librarian before I ever started school, and I remember that the previous librarian hadn't done much to "rustle up customers". When Mom took over, most of the books in the library were published from 1920 to 1940, and this was twenty years later, so no wonder few people stepped foot inside the door! The library was long and narrow, and the building itself was rather decrepit. As long as we were there, there were huge jacks in the basement holding up the floor and all those books.
I vaguely remember that there were a few bookshelves lining the walls, a desk and chair for the librarian, and a couple of other chairs. The place was dark, dark, dark. Mom went to work. Her hardest task was getting the money that she needed from the library board, but once new members were in place, the financial side got easier. (I think she had to make some serious promises about increased circulation.) Mom managed to get the money for new bookshelves. I can't remember who built them, but I can remember painting them all. My clearest memories of the library are ones with new lighting where you could actually see where you were going and read the print on the page, of bookshelves lining the walls on both sides all the way down to the end of the room, and one long double-sided row straight down the middle. Mom's desk and chair were right at the front. She could keep an eye on the weather outside and the traffic, and be right there to greet everyone who came inside. There were a couple of chairs by the desk because the library quickly became one of the local hang-outs for readers in the area. Not only was Mom getting new books in stock, but with her various part time jobs, she had her finger on the pulse of the town. There were several times that I remember bringing chairs up from the back to accommodate everyone who wanted to sit with a pile of books in their laps and chat.
My domain was in the back where the children's books were. There was a big wooden table and six chairs back there. When I wasn't helping Mom by shelving books, I was back there at the table reading and doing my homework.
The library became busier and busier. The books were no longer shelved by the Dewey Decimal system, which made no sense to anyone in town; they were shelved by genre. The talcum-scented, white-haired ladies who liked to read Grace Livingston Hill now knew right where "their" books were. The weather-beaten farmers whose tan lines ended halfway up their foreheads knew where "their" Westerns were. Shelving by genre just made more sense, and it's something I do with my personal library here at home.
The old library had been dark and silent. The people who came in didn't speak much. The new library was lighter, there were new books to read, and news to be shared. This library wasn't one where people wanted to sit and do research. This was a library for busy people who wanted to come in, get something good to read and have a bit of a chin wag before running their next errand. Children were encouraged to come in because Mom worked hard at beefing up the children's section. Before there were only a few copies of Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys and all the Tarzan books. Now there was Dr. Seuss, Marguerite Henry, Walter Farley, the Childhood of Famous Early American Series, and on and on and on. I'd often find myself reading a book aloud to younger children. I can still hear them squeal and laugh in my mind.
The old place was coming to life--and becoming a huge part of mine.
The Back Door
Last week, I described how Mom and I walked to the library, but there's always an alternate route. We could get there even quicker if we walked from the back door of the apartment to the back door of the library. This route usually meant that either (1) the weather was absolutely foul, or (2) Mom wanted to get some work done and not have anyone see us. Being a librarian was a part time position in our small farm town, but Mom had made promises to the library board, and that meant putting in unpaid time. The board received even more work gratis because I worked there and never got paid a cent until I turned sixteen. But in both our cases, it was a labor of love.
Mom had told the library board that she would make sure circulation increased dramatically if they coughed up the money for more shelves and more books. We had those brand new shelves and lots of those shelves were empty. The Village Hall and the Library were two of the busiest places in town when they were open, so it was almost impossible for us to get anything else done besides working with the patrons. We had no choice but to "sneak in" the back door during hours when the library was closed. The short path led right past all the transformers and other electrical equipment of the village "power station", which had a tendency to draw huge bolts of lightning when it stormed. High above our heads was the siren that went off faithfully at noon each day and when there was a fire. When it wasn't noon and that siren went off, everyone gravitated to the front window to watch all the volunteer firemen come running to the station next-door. And many's the time I was sitting in the back during a storm when lightning struck a few yards away. I'd jump so high that I swear there should still be a dent in the ceiling above the table!
One of the first things Mom did was get a new rolling bamboo shade for the front window. In the summer, the huge piece of plate glass seemed to act like a magnifying glass, and anyone sitting at the front desk would soon feel as if they were on a grill. With that blind rolled down completely over the window and only the very back bank of lights on, people couldn't tell that anyone was in there. We were free to work.
To this day, opening a box of books gives me a thrill that I simply cannot explain to another soul. The smell of new books, the feel of the covers, the excitement of being the first person to open each one, the infinite romance of possibility! If you've got the fever, you understand. If you don't, I can't help but feel a little sorry for you.
When a book shipment arrived, Mom would have it taken to the back room of the Town Hall. Then we'd come back later, move the boxes to the table in the back and start to work. We would take turns reading each title and verifying it against the invoice. Being a typical small child, I was in love with glue, so I had the task of attaching the book pocket to the inside of each book while Mom wrote out the card that would go inside. Then each dust jacket would be encased in a protective mylar cover. Each completed book would go in a separate genre pile. Sometimes the shipment would be so large that we'd have to stop and shelve the finished books before we could continue.
Very gradually, those huge gaps on those new shelves began to disappear (which meant that more jacks had to be put in the basement to hold the floor up). The books sat there, gleaming, like magnets for it seemed that the more books were put on the shelves, the more people came in to check them out. Mom knew everyone in town. She knew the people who were readers and knew the types of books they liked. But as more people heard about the library coming to life and came in to see what was available, Mom didn't always know their preferences. She always, always asked. She knew it was impossible to get every single person in the area inside that library as a patron, but I believe that that was actually her goal. She was passionate about reading, and wanted everyone to have the chance to share her passion.
As I grew up with her in that library, I learned more than just a passion for books and reading. I learned about invoices and inventory, patrons and preferences, hard work and the value of a strong work ethic. I learned that, if you have passion, your energy is boundless, your creativity crackles and sparks, and you just plain want to share it with everyone.
Mom was having resounding success at increasing the circulation of books in the library. More and more people were signing up to have their very own library cards. It wasn't long before the library board wanted more, and they began pressuring her to join with the Rolling Prairie Library system so that our library would have regular visits from the bookmobile and the added resources of the much larger organization. Mom was all for the bookmobile and the resources, but she had her doubts about how well our small town library would mesh with Rolling Prairie. As for me, I was all for the change. I already had a library card for the Decatur Public Library, and anything that would give me access to more books without the necessity of Mom borrowing my grandparents' car was good to me.
But I knew that Mom always had a reason for everything she did in her job, her passion. She spoke with librarians in other small towns who'd joined the system. She wanted their firsthand knowledge of what to expect. Over and over she heard the same things. The access to a wider range of books was marvelous, but the larger system was very insistent on the smaller libraries changing to their way of doing things. For us, one of those "ways of doing things" would mean reverting to the Dewey decimal system--something that Mom had already proved did not work in our library. She told the board of her reservations. By this time, almost the entire library board was new. They were "young bloods" of the town. They were all readers. They shared Mom's passion. Mom had proved to them that she knew what she was doing, and after hearing her misgivings, the board told her to go ahead and join with Rolling Prairie--but to stand her ground whenever it came to a change that would not be in our library's (and our patrons') best interests.
At that time, the people in town weren't allowed on the bookmobile. Only Mom and I were allowed to climb aboard, and I don't know how I restrained myself to let Mom be the first one up the steps. I was so excited! We both knew the sort of books for which we were looking. I had been helping patrons choose books to read for quite some time, but Mom chose the adult books, and I chose the young adult and children's books. Needless to say, I took a look at everything inside the bookmobile and chose a few things for myself as well. I did feel very grown-up though at having the responsibility of choosing books that other people would want to check out and read.
While the paperwork was being dealt with, one of the ladies stepped down from the bookmobile and came into the library with me. She looked a bit like a June Cleaver clone in her cotton shirtwaist dress with the pastel flower print. All she was missing was her pillbox hat with the tasteful veil and a pair of gloves. She acted as though she were about to perform a White Glove Inspection. Mom and I kept the library clean at all times. We had expected this, but it hadn't taken any time at all for us to get ready because, as I said, we kept the place clean and organized. This lady looked at the desk and the chairs in front. I don't think she liked the fact that it was obvious people were welcome to sit and chat with the librarian. She slowly walked down one aisle, looking at the shelves on both sides. She took a close look at the children's section in back, at the table and chairs. She looked out the window at the thrilling view of the transformers and the siren. She walked slowly back up the other aisle, again looking at the books on both sides. I might have liked her if she hadn't been conducting her inspection by looking down her nose with her mouth screwed up like she'd just bitten into a sour persimmon. She definitely gave the impression that this little town library was beneath her.
It wasn't long before requests came to Mom almost demanding the changeover to the Dewey decimal system.
Five years later, when Mom and I moved out of state so we could both attend college, the Moweaqua Public Library still was not on the Dewey decimal system.
I know this installment doesn't put the Rolling Prairie Library system and one of their librarians in the best of lights. Unfortunately these things can and do happen. But all this happened over thirty years ago, and I know things have changed dramatically since then. As it was, they were responsible for bringing our small town a much wider range of reading material than we could afford on our budget, and for that I will always be thankful.
Making a Card Catalog from Scratch
Last Sunday I told you about the changes the larger library system wanted to make in our small village library. One of them didn't take: the Dewey decimal system. Yes, it is the standard, but it doesn't always fit the needs of each and every library. Ours was one that it didn't fit. However, one of the suggestions the Rolling Prairies library system made was taken up by Mom whole-heartedly: a card catalog listing each and every book we had in our library.
Fortunately an old wooden card catalog was found someplace. Mom stripped the paint and refinished it, and we moved things around in the library to give it pride of place (and easy access to all). We received a bulk shipment of cards, and Mom and I went to town. Those small cards were tricky to place in a typewriter, so most of them were written by hand. (Or should I say hands? Mom's and mine!) Fortunately we both had good legible handwriting. We made sure we both had plenty of Bic pens, and we got to work.
I have no idea of how many hours we spent setting up that catalog. Most of them were unpaid. Many a Friday and Saturday night saw us locking the outer door to the library and village hall at closing time, making sure the blind was lowered, and getting down to business. Armloads of books were brought up. We carefully notated the information from each book onto the card, as well as the book's location, and I reshelved the books. I put most of the cards into the drawers because I liked filing more than Mom, and I was fast. To this day, my hands still feel the writer's cramp and paper cuts!
Finally all the cards were in place and I think we both smiled whenever anyone walked up and opened one of the drawers to search. You may wonder why Mom fought the Dewey decimal system but didn't fight the card catalog. Little did I know it, but she had been putting plans in place that would make that new addition a very useful one indeed. What were her plans? That's a memory for next week!
Mom Adds a Whole New Section of Books
Last week I told you about Mom and I fighting writer's cramp and paper cuts to put together a comprehensive card catalog for the library. In retrospect it's easy for me to see that Mom had big plans in which that card catalog played a part.
In the mid-1960s, Mom became fascinated with genealogy and it didn't take long for my grandmother to join in with her. Mom had the intuitive flashes of genius and determination; my grandmother had the dogged desire to get everything down on paper. I always thought of them as the Holmes and Watson of Genealogy. In this case, Doyle was not the author of the piece because there was a third member of the band: me. I think I was the factotum. Many are the overgrown, forgotten cemeteries we searched for and found, and many are the weathered tombstone inscriptions that I wrote down in my spiral notebooks. I followed direction well and became a dab hand at microfiche readers and deciphering old, bad handwriting. The two of them joined the local genealogical society, and as a result, Mom discovered that many people in our area were researching their own family trees--including members of the library board.
She began compiling a list of basic books and periodicals to show people how to get started. From genealogical society meetings and conversations with library patrons, she learned the areas where most people's ancestors had lived. She tracked down sources for the lists she had compiled, made purchases, and we cleared a large section of shelves for their arrival.
The section was placed close to Mom's desk so that she would be right on hand to be of any assistance. The shelves filled. Patrons who were also members of the same society began telling other genealogy fanatics about the new section in our little library. Those people came to take a look and were impressed by the depth of information and Mom's skill. Word spread quickly, and genealogists from near and far began to come to our library. Not only did they become acquainted with the genealogy section, but they also checked out other books to read. If they wanted to do research, the card catalog was available listing all the resources. Many times when school was in session, genealogists filled the large table back in the children's section. When children were there and wanted the table so they could sit and read the latest treasures they'd found, the genealogists moved to the tables across the vestibule in the village hall.
Mom's vision for a new section in our village library paid off in a big way--more than she'd ever dreamed. Her passion. to get people into the library and to use it, meant that she paid attention to what the people in the area wanted and needed--something that's carried out day after day in thousands of libraries across the country.
I am very very proud to say that, although many changes were made in our village library after Mom and I moved away, the genealogy section still exists. To this day, it is still one of the library's largest draws. In Mom's case, the family tree bore more than one kind of fruit.
Sometimes you just have to have a little fun. This applies to librarians, too. When you live in a town small enough so that everyone knows everyone else, and when you work in a small library in that same small town, you get to know the quirks of the patrons. You know the types of books they like to read and set ones aside for them. You know of the patron who won't check out any book that weighs over a pound because it's too heavy to hold and read in bed at night. You know of the patron who'll read anything with red on the cover. And it goes without saying that you know about the young patrons who think they're pulling one over on you.
I well remember the evening one such young patron walked into the library. I was a year ahead of her in high school, and was in the same class as her older sister. (When I said everyone knew everyone else, I meant it. My graduating class consisted of 35 students.) While the older sister, Melissa (name changed to protect the innocent), preferred light romances to read, her younger sister, Melinda (ditto), preferred books with a little more "substance" in the way of romance. However Melinda thought that Mom might have a problem with the sort of book she wanted to check out, and she devised a fool-proof plan. At least she thought she did.
Whenever Melinda found a book that she thought Mom would have problems with, she would check out a tall stack of books...and slip the "racy" one in the middle of the pile. Mom had a way of checking out books that didn't involve eyeballing each dust jacket. Melinda thought that, if Mom didn't see the cover, she would be home safe. She didn't realize that both Mom and I were very well acquainted with each and every book in that library, and neither one of us needed to see the cover to know which books Melinda was checking out.
On the night in question, Melinda waited in the stacks for everyone else to check out their books and leave. I was on the other side shelving books and dusting. From her position, I knew exactly which book Melinda wanted to check out. So did Mom. I leaned back from the shelves a bit and sneaked a peek at Mom. Mom winked at me. That wink told me to be ready.
A woman who lived on a farm out east of town took her books up to Mom, chatted a bit, and then left. Melinda, Mom and I were the only ones in the library. Melinda had to be ready to make her move. Sure enough, barely a minute had passed before Melinda reached for that racy book. Mom called to me from the front desk:
"Cathy, we need to stop at the store on the way home. Can you think of anything that we need?"
I gave it some thought. "Aren't we getting a little low on oatmeal?"
"Yes, we are. I'll add that to my list. What about supper tonight? I was thinking about having a nice tossed salad to go with those pork chops. Does that sound good to you?"
"Yes, it does."
"Good. We have some radishes, carrots and an onion, but we'll need a head of lettuce."
"Won't be much of a salad without the lettuce," I replied, feeling Melinda fiddling with her stack of books on the other side of the shelves.
Mom laughed in agreement. "Oh! You know what I almost forgot?"
"What's that?" I asked, knowing that Mom was about to spring her trap.
"Cucumber! I think salad just doesn't taste right without a nice big cucumber, don't you?"
Leaning back to wink at Mom, I said in a perfectly normal tone of voice, "I don't either" right over the small gasp from the other side of the shelves.
With that one word, Melinda knew that Mom knew exactly what she was doing, but due to my talent at keeping a straight face, when Melinda peeked through the shelves at me, she didn't think I knew what was up. To give her credit, Melinda didn't change her choice of reading material, and her face was only slightly pink when she walked up to the desk and handed Mom her books. But she didn't look Mom in the eye!
Although my mind is still categorized and shelved in the same way as the Moweaqua Public Library was all those years ago, it's not just the books that stick in my mind. Many of the people do, too. I've already talked about one patron in my post last week, and from the lack of comments, I'm wondering if some of you weren't offended by it. After all, it was about a young girl checking out suggestive reading material with the librarians' knowledge. Perhaps some of you thought Mom should not have let Melinda check out that type of book, or that she should have at least said something to Melinda's mother. If Mom had said something to Melinda's mother, it would've stirred up a huge tempest in a teapot. The book was merely suggestive, not pornographic. Our library did not contain any pornographic books. For all Melinda's curiosity, she wasn't getting much information from the type of book she was reading!
Melinda isn't the only patron that sticks in my memory. There are the elderly ladies who came in each week to check out a brand-new batch of Grace Livingston Hills and other light romances. These ladies all wore thick support stockings and lace-up shoes from all the years of standing at their stoves making sure all their menfolk were fed. They had white hair gathered in buns at the back of their necks, and they smelled of lavender talcum powder or Avon's rose cologne. Just looking at them made me think of cookies, pies and treadle sewing machines. For the most part, these ladies called ahead and had me choose their books for them, declaring to everyone when they arrived that no one could choose better books for them than I. Getting hugs from these ladies was like being smothered in the softest of pillows.
The man who worked for the village making sure that all the roads were in good shape stopped by almost every day that the library was open. He didn't have much education, and the job he had made sure that his clothes were filthy most of the time. Those two reasons and a couple of others made people tend to stay away from him, but Mom and I liked him. He kept a close eye on those jacks in the basement that were holding up the library floor, and he always treated us as if we were honored members of his family. You can't get much better than that.
Another man also comes to my mind, but for an entirely different reason. He was a grumpy old farmer known for (1) never tipping a waitress at the cafe in town, (2) never looking for oncoming traffic when he reversed out of a parking space, and (3) never having a good word to say to anyone. He tended to check books out in the winter when there wasn't so much to do out on his farm. Mom and I always knew that the books would be defaced when he brought them back. What did he do? As he read, if he came across any word he thought was a swear word or "dirty", he drew a thick line through that word with a black marker. Then he'd take a Bic pen and, inside the back cover of the book, he would write the page number and the word that he'd crossed out. Mom and I could never figure out why he went to all the trouble of marking through the word only to notate it in the back. Mom told him to stop several times, but gave up because it was obvious that the ornery old fart wasn't going to listen to her. He never checked out popular titles, or he would've found himself being banned from the library.
There was another man who liked to pop into the library to spread any bad news he'd happened to hear--especially if anyone had died. His name became synonymous with Bad News. If people saw him leaving the library, they'd hurry in, asking "Who died?"
There was a lady who was a great reader, but wouldn't check out any book that weighed over a pound because if it did, it would be too heavy to hold while she read in bed. She was a strange duck and counted Mom as a great friend since they'd both been widowed at a young age. Although I was much the same age as the woman's daughter, I seldom could get more than a word or two from the girl. A visit from those two always bothered Mom and me in some undefinable way. During one nasty cold winter, the woman didn't come to the library for a couple of weeks. Just as Mom said something to me about her absence, someone came in and told us that she'd given her daughter an overdose of pills and then killed herself. Thinking about those two still fills me with sadness.
Last but not least was the lady in town who was thrilled when Mom created the genealogy section. This lady had been working on her family tree for quite some time, and she loved to come in on the days we stayed open in the evenings. She'd sit in a chair by Mom's desk and regale Mom with tales of her ancestors...in particular an ancestor known as Poker Armstrong. She was so proud of Poker that you'd think he was George Washington and Abraham Lincoln all rolled into one. Whenever Mom looked out the plate glass window and saw that woman's Caddy pull into a parking space in front of the library, she'd sigh and put on her Company Face. I would take the opportunity to grab an armload of books to shelve or to pick up the duster...anything so I wouldn't get drawn into the conversation.
One evening before the lady came in, I told Mom that I'd noticed something she did every time Poker Armstrong's name was mentioned. Mom would ball her right hand into a fist and push it against her desk blotter very slowly, right where the palm of her hand joined her wrist. Mom wasn't aware of doing it, but to me it was a neon sign shouting how sick of Poker Armstrong she was. Sure enough, here the woman came that evening, and the pleasantries had barely been exchanged before she started in with Poker Armstrong this...Poker Armstrong that. From my vantage point, I leaned out to look at Mom. Sure enough, there that fist was, slowly making its way up the desk blotter. Mom saw me out of the corner of her eye, and I grinned at her. After the lady left, I caught some flak for making Mom's life more difficult. Not only did she have to remember about her fist and the desk blotter, but she had to keep a straight face as well!
Remembering those long ago patrons is comforting. I can see them as clearly as though they're standing right in front of me in the here and now. Growing up in that library was a very special experience, but it would not have been nearly as special without the people coming in the door each and every day.
The Well of Lost Books
Has this ever happened: you go to the library for a specific book and, although the system says the book is there, no one can find it? Sound familiar? You've probably even wondered what happened to the book. Computer glitch? Book thief? The culprit may be even more insidious than those. You might've just become a victim of the Book Browsing Patron. All libraries have BBPs. They're the patrons who know they want something to read; they just don't know what it is, so they browse through the shelves at random. One trait that many BBPs share is that they're so consumed by the quest that they often forget to put the book back where they found it.
The Moweaqua Public Library had its share of BBPs when I was growing up. Mom and I knew exactly where every book should be, so we were slightly annoyed when we couldn't find a particular one. We both knew that we were shelving the books correctly, so that wasn't the problem. I seemed to be the one sent on fruitless searches most often, so I decided to go into Sherlock Mode and get to the bottom of the mystery.
When I had all my work done in the library, I sat at the table in the back where the children's section was. I would do homework, research term papers, write reams of horrible little stories and poems, and--of course--read. Once I decided to become Sherlock, I added one more item to my multi-tasking list: surreptitiously watching patrons. I knew they had to be the ones putting books in the wrong spots.
I'd barely begun my investigation when I met with success, and instead of dragging you through the entire case, I'll summarize. This is what I learned while watching library patrons browse through the bookshelves:
--Short-statured patrons when having to stretch up for an intriguing book from the top shelves have the propensity to put the book back in the middle range of shelves. They don't want to get up on tippy toes again, or they forget that they did.
--Tall patrons who have to crouch for a likely looking book from the bottom shelves have the tendency to put the book back in the middle range of shelves. They don't want to twang those crouch muscles again, or they forgot all about feeling the twang in the first place.
--Patrons, regardless of which shelf they found the book on, who for some reason turn their backs to the shelves to lean against them while looking through the book will usually put the book back on the middle range of shelves that are in front of them. That means that, not only is the book on the wrong shelf, it's not even in the right bookcase.
All this information so carefully gleaned was put to good use by me immediately. When asked to get a certain title, I'd first look where it was supposed to be. If it wasn't there, I'd look in the middle range of shelves on that same side. If it wasn't there, I'd immediately turn around and face the opposite direction and check the middle range of shelves. 99.9% of the time, I found the book.
Overnight I became a Book Hunter Extraordinaire. "How on earth did you know to look there?" I never divulged my secrets...until today. I still find them useful in libraries and book shops. You might want to give it a try yourself. Did I ever roll my eyes at these thoughtless patrons? No. Why stress over human nature? Besides, several times I noticed that a patron had become lost in a book they'd found and were not even aware of putting the other book(s) back in the wrong place. I know what it's like to be lost in a good book. I know you do, too.