Memories of a Carnegie Library

I don’t really remember the outside
because I couldn’t wait to get inside.
I had to climb stairs to get there, so those
are crisp, but the bricks, bushes, pillars
are blurry & unfamiliar. Can’t say
if they were like other libraries.
I never looked up, but always forward.
Climbing the steps was like going to church.
The stairs outside: concrete, warm and gritty.
Open the first door, and it was dim and cool.
Dim, cool, and quiet as a sacred place.
Inside there were more stairs, and more before
large heavy doors in front of the long desk.
Children’s books to the right and back. Youth books
to the right, and right again. The rest were,
of course, for the grown ups, and not for us.
The stairs inside: marble, slippery, cool.
The outside edge of the inside stairs curled
around a column on each side, rounded
in a broad bottom step, where I’d hide
with ‘my’ books in the echoing chill, until
it was time to go home with my parents.
When I was old enough to walk there alone
I’d be at the library every day
there wasn’t school or church. That was summer.
Ten books a day. Ten books every day.
“You know,” the librarian chatted, “you don’t
need to bring them back the next day. You can
keep them long enough to read them.” I blinked.
“But,” I said, “I did. Read them.” She blinked. “Oh.”
Ten books a day. Ten books every day.
Until they ran out. That surprised them, too.
I don’t remember who took me by the hand
back to “Children’s,” trying to find something
I hadn’t read. I remember the books
on the low shelves: red and brown in worn cloth,
blue and green in crinkled plastic covers;
the picture books, the biographies, science,
history, fiction, … Large leathery chairs
in the corners of the room as we walked
around the entire wall. Short wooden stools,
a patch of carpet, large paned windows.
I looked up expectantly. “Are there more?”

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17 responses to “Memories of a Carnegie Library

  1. Just like the musical oliver – more please. My number one memory of U of M is the old libraries – many are gone now. But I loved the grad library stacks and the twisty path in the math library stacks in Angell.

    • I used a photo of the twisty path with colored lines in a different blogpost yesterday! This is National Library Week, and it just … well, I couldn’t resist doing a library poem. 🙂

  2. I love every word!! The old libraries like you’ve described, were very much like churches–the modern ones just aren’t the same, don’t have the same ambiance–but at least they still have the books!

    • I realized while writing this that the ambiance I described may be part of while I’ve always felt so strongly that being a librarian is a kind of spiritual vocation.

      • It can be. I worked in a library for several years, my very fave job–the only drawback was that I wanted to read Every book that came across the counter. So, sometimes as I was checking a patron’s book out for him/her–I’d be grabbing it and saying, “oh I want this one next!” And I met some lovely people there–readers are the best folks!

      • I can’t disagree with any of that. 🙂 When I was a student worker in an academic library, one of the bosses had the idea that if she assigned folk to shelve in areas they didn’t like. She had a lot of trouble finding a place to put me, finally assigned me to mathematics and engineering. So then in grad school I worked as the artificial intelligence liaison librarian. 😉 ROFL!

      • That is too good! And so are you–glad we’ve met here!

      • Likewise! It’s a real pleasure. 🙂

      • Thank you! By the way, is that a picture of you–in the gravatar? It reminds me somewhat of one of my old college roommates….

      • Nope, it’s a photo of a mural in Pittsburgh. At least, if I’m remembering the gravatar correctly. Long dark hair in a red dress? It was from a CocaCola ad mural.

      • No no–the black and white portrait is what I’m speaking of.

      • Ah, that’s a photo taken of me in my 20s, but even now (decades later) people introduce themselves on the bus because they recognize me from it.

      • WOW, you haven’t changed in decades! I look like some ancient relic–not that I care anymore, I have better fish to fry!

      • Oh, I’ve changed, it’s just pounds, tho, not so much the general overall tendency of the shape. 😉

  3. Meredith Gould

    We had the same childhood! 10 books, read one day and returned the next. My mother finally imposed this rule: at least one nonfiction and one biography, Poetry was added to the list. By 5th grade, I begged permission to use the Adult Section (which meant “grownups” back then). My first “adult” book was, no surprise, Gentleman’s Agreement. I, 7th grade I snuck-read Gone With the Wind in three days. When I have time, I read 2-3 books a week. Books. Libraries. Biss.

    • Yep! They let me into the Youth section without too much of a problem, but letting me into the Adult Section after I’d exhausted all the other books was a big deal. They had to create a disclaimer of responsibility form for my parents to sign, giving me permission to access books in the Adult Section. After that, it was almost a “oh, well, we should have expected this” when I got my parents permission to borrow Chaucer from the locked glass case for “naughty” books.

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