Last week I wrote about Carnegie libraries, which started me thinking about the libraries in my life.
I was an early reader. In fact, I can't remember not being able to read. My mother claims I read street signs to her when she drove me places, not that I remember that. She too was a reader, so there was always reading material around the house, including the large-format glossy magazines of the day—Life, Look, The Saturday Evening Post. I still miss those.
My first library experience did not end well. As I've said here before, when we moved to a new town, the year I was five, my mother took me to get a library card, and I took good care of it. However, somewhere along the way there was some miscommunication: I thought that once you took the books out of the library, they were yours to keep. Which does not explain why I hid them under my bed. My mother confiscated my library card, and I still rankle at the memory.
Later she relented, and I usually had a library card for whatever town we lived in (we moved around a lot). Of course, my mother had to do the driving then. At least she supported my reading addiction (and probably hers as well). And there were always school libraries, although as I recall they limited the number of books you could take out at one time, which was never enough for me. It wasn't until I was in my teens that I lived close enough to the local library to walk there.
When we moved to Madison, New Jersey, in the 1960s, there was a delightful old library in town, which I used regularly (remember when you had to do real live research for school papers?). However, apart from admiring the architecture now and then (and marveling at the opaque glass floors in the stacks, which I found unsettling), I didn't think much about it. On a whim I looked it up when I was checking out Andrew Carnegie, and I found something that surprised me.
The James Library opened in 1900, the gift of D. Willis James, who in addition to funding the granite and limestone structure also stocked the library with 5,000 books. I never even knew the library had a name—it was the The Library. And I certainly had no idea who D. Willis James was. What kid or teenager thinks about the history of his or her town? (Well, I did know that Madison was once known as Bottle Hill because of the tavern located there in the 18th century.)
So I looked up Mr. James, who turns out to have been Daniel Willis James, age 68, iron merchant, living on Madison Avenue (as I did, but not exactly in the same neighborhood) in 1900. He was a corporate mogul with a variety of mining and railroad interests. When he died in 1907, he was one of the hundred wealthiest men in America. Maps show that he and his wife owned a nice chunk of land on the north side of town, the site of his summer home, built in 1885. Anyway, this civic-minded gentleman gave the town a library.
But that's not the whole story. Mr. James also built a commercial building across the street (called the James Building, no surprise) whose purpose was "to provide income for the Library's maintenance and operation." Funny—I remember the James Building almost as well as I remember the library. It had a ballroom upstairs, where I attended a couple of meetings; a music store, where I had one of my first jobs, bartering for guitar lessons; and downstairs, a hair salon where I had my hair done for the junior prom. There was a drugstore with a soda fountain on the corner. In short, it was an important part of the town.
What is so lovely is that Mr. James did not just hand a gift to the town and walk away. He was a smart businessman and made sure that the library's expenses would be covered in the future. Both buildings are still standing, although the library building now houses a small museum; the town built a new library on the other side of town shortly after I left for college.
Like Carnegie, James (who attended school in Scotland) believed in contributing to his community, which he did in many ways. We were and are lucky that they both thought libraries were important. And what's more, they both created memorable settings for learning and reading.