In my last post, I drifted onto the topic of libraries–and stirred up images of favorite places. Libraries have certainly been among my favorite places and loom large in my childhood memories. Two of those libraries were new when I entered their doors: the Grinton I. Will Library in Yonkers, NY, which opened in 1962 (I first visited in 1964) and the W. Leslie Rogers Library in Pennsauken, NJ, which opened its doors in 1971. I recall a few distinct discoveries even from my first-grade forays to the Yonkers library. It was there I discovered Richard Wilbur’s Digging for China, a book I adored.
Free public libraries represent one of the best uses and most noble purposes of the tax dollars and philanthropic gestures of citizens in a democratic society. These buildings, some grand and some exceedingly modest, harbor banned books and out-of-print books and sections devoted especially to children’s books; a library admits of free speech and liberated thinking for people of all ages. A library, by its very existence, reminds citizens that education matters and that information can be free, can be borrowed, can be disseminated and shared.
When I was a child, libraries were safe places to hide, to explore, and to pursue my own interests–which often varied quite a bit from the interests of my peers. The library in Pennsauken offered me an early education on visual art. I probably borrowed every book in the place that had anything to do with art or artists, from Aesthetic Inquiry; Essays on Art Criticism and the Philosophy of Art to The Agony and the Ecstasy. The library stocked a book chronicling the letters of Theo and Vincent van Gogh as well as huge, heavy, hard-cover museum books with color plates of famous artwork. Some of these were stamped more than a few times with my library card’s number.
I also borrowed, and read–enthusiastically and, occasionally, dutifully–classic novels that I had somehow learned I “ought” to read. I read a fair number of junky novels, too, and young adult fiction, and children’s books. Even though I was nearly ten when Leo Lionni’s Frederick was published, I loved it and never considered it a “little kid’s book.” Interestingly, Frederick the mouse gathers images and turns them into words. He is a poet. (A word-artist).
Books: Anything, everything, as bibliophile overlaps with autodidact.
Books were my first and often my best teachers, though I have been fortunate enough to have had some wonderful teachers (formal and informal) in my life. One of them, my grandmother Edna Michael, will always be closely associated with libraries in my heart and memory. She was the Story Lady at her small-town library in South Whitley, IN; and my siblings and I spent many hours in the small white building that housed South Whitley’s free circulating books. We read, and we listened to her read. She would don “an olden-times dress” she’d designed and sewn herself, tie on a large matching bonnet, and gather the town’s youngsters in a circle on the library floor for story time.
She always left the library with at least a couple of grownup books for her own reading material. I was proud to be like her.
A few years ago, the town enlarged its library, added a new children’s wing, and dedicated it in my grandmother’s name. Edna Michael, the Story Lady.
I’m pretty proud of that, too.
The South Whitley Library as it was in 1967, with my grandmother in her Story Lady attire.