Sunday, October 12, 2008

Library Memories: 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.

[Next Sunday: The Bookmobile]


  1. What a wonderful post, Cathy! It brought back memories of my time as a child helping my mother in her classroom. Not the same thing, but similar in some ways.

  2. Yes, it would be. I'm having fun with this series of posts.


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