Thursday, December 13, 2007

In Praise of Libraries

Elizabeth Zelvin

I was very disappointed to learn recently that my local branch of the New York Public Library, the St. Agnes Branch on the Upper West Side, is closed for renovation for the next two years. I had gotten out of the library habit—ordering books online is so easy, and schmoozing with booksellers, especially mystery booksellers, so much fun—but I’d planned to get back in. I not only have a new library card, complete with bar code and pin number, but I’ve even been carrying the mini version of my library card on my key chain. I had a date with myself to try the 21st century method of ordering the books I want online and picking them up at my local branch. So now I’ll have to work a little harder than I hoped at getting library books home.

When I was a kid, my father used to take my sister and me to the library. I lived in Queens, halfway between Flushing and Jamaica. Come to think of it, when I was very young, the nearest branch of the Queensborough Public Library was in Flushing, a bus ride away. Eventually, they built a branch within walking distance, around the back of the bank where I had my very first savings account. But before that, we took the bus. That and going to the movies were my father’s two allotted parenting tasks. We were each allowed to take home seven books. Sometimes, my father went to the library alone. When he came back, if you asked him, “What did you get?” he always said, “Seven books.” They were usually novels. My parents’ house was filled with books, but most of them seemed pretty boring. Some of them sat there for fifty years without once tempting me to read them. Buying novels was considered an extravagance. Why bother, when you could get them from the library?

In those days, as far as I know, libraries didn’t sell off their books. If you’d taken them out and read them, you could count on finding them when you wanted to read them again. The two children’s books I took out most frequently and remember most vividly were a book of Russian fairy tales and a collection of biographies. The fairy tales—folk tales would probably be a more accurate term—always had a hero named Prince Ivan and a princess named Vassilisa. The villain was usually the witch Baba Yaga, who had a magic cauldron and lived in the woods in a hut that stood on giant chicken legs. The legs allowed the hut to move around, and I think it could fly as well.

The biographies were about a different kind of hero (and a heroine or two): Marie and Pierre Curie, Livingston and Stanley, Sun Yat Sen, and Ghandi, among others. I still remember all sorts of details from those biographies. Did you know that Ghandi’s first name was Mohandas? And that he was married, by parental arrangement, at 13? In a discussion of how they don’t make copy editors the way they used to, Ruth Cavin, my editor at St. Martin’s, told me about what she considered the worst copy editorial faux pas that had come her way: a manuscript made a reference to Dr. Sun Yat Sen, and the copy editor didn’t understand why the character needed medical care. (“What kind of doctor was he?”) Thanks to my childhood reading from the library, I got the point.

As of September 2007, the American Library Association had 64,979 members. That’s a lot of librarians. Rosemary Harris, who is organizing an expedition to the January ALA meeting in Philadelphia for members of Mystery Writers of America/ New York, said recently, “You never know where a librarian may be lurking.” I agree. Librarians founded the great mystery e-list DorothyL. There are loads of them on MySpace. My brother-in-law in Ohio is a librarian. Librarians have my enthusiastic vote of thanks for keeping readers reading—and writers writing.


Ken said...

My early memories of the Perth Amboy Public Library: The "Children's Library" was in a separate part of the building, with it's own entrance. I think there was some non-public route that linked it up with the main library.

Until a certain age, you got a card good only in the Children's Library. But I recall there were ways around that restriction if you got on good terms with the librarians.

Guess who was on good terms with the librarians....

Ken Isaacson

Lesa said...

Elizabeth - Thanks for mentioning your early memories of your public library. I loved my hometown library in Huron, Ohio. One of the best weeks of my life was the week we housesat down the street from the library, and I could walk there every day. Of course, I loved it so much that my goal in life was to be library director there some day. I accomplished that by age 22, and I tell my husband that's why I've never had any other goals for the last 28 years. When you've achieved it by 22, what else is there? It was a wonderful job, and a cozy library.

I've been a public librarian ever since.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Lesa, your comment put a big smile on my face. It's a treat--and all too rare--to come across someone who truly loves her (or his) job. And a happy librarian makes for happy readers. :)

Lesa said...

Thank you, Elizabeth! My former hairdresser and I always congratulated each other that we had found the right jobs. We both loved what we did.

Anonymous said...

When I finished graduate school I sent flowers to the reference desk at my library. (They'd earned that degree as much as I had.)

Paul Lamb

Rosemary Harris said...

I have very fond memories of my local library in Brooklyn. I would trek to the Clarendon Branch by myself on Saturday mornings and come home with a stack of horse stories and biographies. (Does anyone still know who Luther Burbank and Gregor Mendel were? My librarian did.)