Supported by libraries

My childhood homes were full of books, sometimes to the exclusion of any other furnishings.  Not just my mother’s house but other places where I spent significant periods of life.  My nursery school, for instance, had a fabulously overstuffed, face-out book shelf unit with a seemingly ever-revolving series of offerings, some of which aimed directly at the potential user’s likely age (Robert McCloskey’s Blueberries for Sal), some pitched high (Bobbsey Twins) and others angling for media tie-in attention (Tom Terrific).  We sometimes visited the local branch of the public library, or a lady from there came to visit us during morning circle.  The branch was called Brownlee Woods and I got “Brownlee” tangled with “brownie” and was fairly sure the branch was peopled by mischievous little people.

On Saturdays, my mother took me to the main library, downtown.  The furniture in the children’s room was ugly as all get out:  heavy blond wood and thick plastic upholstery that was a dangerous hue between yellow and green.  But the room was huge and laid out with developmental logic:  picture books right at the entrance, a service point (desk of minimal size behind which the librarian never hid) beyond that as the middle grade fiction unwound to the nonfiction and fireplace end of the room where the junior high books were shelved across from the magazines.  In spite of the hideous furniture, the art over the fireplace pleased me: Diego Rivera’s pigtailed girl with lilies (she had pigtails just like me!). In that room, I must have read a thousand picture books, discovered Elizabeth Enright, worked through my 10-year-old fascination with bricklaying patterns and methods, went on to read every issue of Boys Life and then–in a quirk that foretold my future vocation–moved on to Top of the News.

My school library during this period, however, was nothing at which to shake a stick.  The school building had been built in three stages: one in 1912, a third in the late 1950’s and a few rooms (including the gym/auditorium) at some time in between.  A classroom-sized area that opened onto the gym (or the teacher’s parking lot if one exited the other side) was called the “library”; absolutely nothing in it was more recently published than 1935 or so.  World War II, let alone the Korean Police Action and the Vietnam Conflict, had yet to happen when the collection seemed to have been closed. This wasn’t a problem for most of my fellow students because we never used the space–let alone the collection–in the course of our schooldays.  However, I was sent off to it on a regular basis, usually when my reading in the classroom or hallway was deemed distracting.  By the time I was in Grade 2, I knew to bring my own reading matter there, however, having tried to slog through Quo Vadis back when I’d arrived unprepared.

Later, at boarding school, the library I found waiting for me came with the extraordinary feature of direct access to a duck pond.  Ducks, and a few sharper tempered geese, would wander through when warm weather encouraged us to leave the library door open. That collection was almost useful and included a few literary gems I might not have found in a larger mine: The King from Ashtabula, My Antonia, Karl Popper.  Neither of the other two secondary schools I attended had libraries worth mentioning, either pro or con.

As an undergraduate, I fell into enrolling in Supreme Court law classes as a respite from my “real” studies.  The teachers were good, the subject matter fantastic, and the requirement that term end papers rely on resources that required me to explore otherwise hidden realms of Los Angeles tantalizing.  My friend Nancy (who died back in 1991) and I would spend hot afternoons in the cool of LA County’s law library and then eat sandwiches at some nearby hole in the wall.

Would I have become a librarian without all these riches–and the occasional droughts? Maybe, but it would have been a different kind, I think.  I don’t mean a different avenue of the vocation, but with a different attitude.  I just got lucky.


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