I learned that this is National Library Week from the librarians at school. In celebration they had coffee and sweet rolls/ bagels this morning and wine and cheese after school for faculty and staff. They were giving away books (discards), book marks, and book bags. They were even promoting the day as “Dress like a librarian day.” One put her hair in a bun, attached chains to her eyeglasses so they could rest across her chest, and wore sensible shoes. The librarians at my school demonstrate a generosity of spirit, have a wonderful sense of humor, and are incredibly supportive, enthusiastic, and creative problem-solvers, helping teachers and students locate the resources they need for work in the classroom and out.
I felt well- held as well in The West Toledo Branch Library, which I frequented as a child. It looked like a medieval castle or a chalet. There was something enchanting, magical, sacred about entering its internal space. There were big windows that flooded the interior with light. You could sit there, in the window seats, with your book, soaking up light inside and out. The right half of the library was children’s books, the adult books to the left. I remember my dad letting me wander in the adult section to browse. I felt so grown-up. There were better art books there. There was a fireplace and comfy chairs.
In the basement, the librarians had storytelling hour once a week after school. I used to love to go and hear them read from books or just tell stories aloud. Once during the winter holidays the storytelling librarian had us all sing Christmas carols. One of the songs was “We three Kings.” Being Jewish, Christmas carols have always had a distant, vaguely melancholy feeling for me. My friend, Steven Beck, taught me another version for “We Three Kings” on the way to school one day and I asked the librarian if I might share it with the rest of the group. “Of course,” she replied.
We three kings of orient are
Tried to smoke a rubber cigar
It was loaded
All over Casey’s bar…
I guess I understood that this version was funny, but didn’t really grasp that it was irreverent. At least it was to this librarian. I didn’t get much further before the librarian kicked me out of storytelling hour telling me I was no longer welcomed. When I told my mother the story when I got home, she literally slapped her knee and laughed aloud. I was very sad that I would never be able to go back to storytelling again. My mother assured me I would definitely be allowed back; it would be OK. It was OK.
The library was walking distance from our house. After dinner, my dad, sister, brother, and I would often go to take out books. Though we lived so close it never failed that our books were always returned late, especially my dad’s. My mother would sometimes come as well and she would get stacks of mysteries. Sometimes after school we would go to the library and wait until my dad got home from work. I remember the librarian often saying, as we checked out our books, “Please tell your Dad to return his books. They’re all overdue.”
In the summer there were summer reading programs to read as many books as possible. You got a sticker for each book you completed. Sometimes you had to write a short book report to prove you had. I remember always ending my book reports with, “I won’t reveal the ending. You will have to read the book to find out for yourself.” With this ending, I didn’t always have to finish books and could accumulate mega amounts of stickers. (I’m not real proud of this fact.)
There was this feeling, this smell, this feel about the place. I’m sitting here writing this now and its memory seems so real. The look of the books. Those textured bookclothed-covers with the opaque printed titles and images. The rounded hefty spines. The illustrations. Mrs. Piggly Wiggly, books on dinosaurs, the librarian’s desk, the counter where you checked out books, the stamp the librarian used to put the date on the card when the books were due, and the pocket that held that card. The window seat. The quiet. The browsing. The walk home. The anticipation of the stories inside my checked out books. The calm.
The palpable sense there was nothing else to do but read.
(I took these photos of the West Toledo Branch Library a few years ago when I was visiting Toledo and wandering the old neighborhood.)