Saturday, July 01, 2006
Homage to Old Libraries
I have wonderful memories of libraries. As a child in Mobile -- we moved over the bay when I was nine -- my sister and I went every Saturday to hear Miss Kertsiek read to the assembled children of Mobile. We called her "Miss Curtsey;" I never knew that wasn't her name until Bob Bell, who was probably dating her at the time she was doing those readings, wrote about her in a letter to me. Miss Curtsey was lovely (in my memory most of the young women were pretty) and had that elegant, expository style of reading to children, stopping to explain or ask questions from time to time, that we found riveting.
I loved going to the library and exploring the shelves, picking out a book just for myself. The smell of a roomful of books was intoxicating. (It still is, in the right environment, not only a refreshing glimpse of the past but also a promise of excitement to be had being transported to another time and place through the act of reading.)
The big library in Mobile was a ticket to the whole world. The little library in Fairhope, on the other hand, was woefully ill-equipped for children, with old first editions and out of print books and very few of the shiny new books designed for beginning readers and rugrats of the day. But it had something else -- a librarian even more wonderful that Miss Curtsey, the gentle and brilliant if sometimes caustic Anna Braune. Miss Braune was naturally as quiet as a library herself, and as full of knowledge and promise. She was somebody you aspired to know better.
All the bookish kids in Fairhope, including my older sister, adored Miss Braune. She knew how to relate to them and to provide them with the kind of books that would inspire them. She once said that she related best to bad children. Found them congenial, she said. My sister once encountered a young man who was definitely in that category, one of her contemporaries whom we would identify today as an at-risk kid because he smoked and had a reputation as delinquent (if not actively, at least potentially). They were both walking in Fairhope and she asked him where he was going. "To visit Anna," he said.
"Yeah. She's a friend of mine."
This was a shock. Jealousy and outrage bubbled up as my sister huffily declared, "She's a friend of mine too!"
The atmosphere of the little Fairhope library was homey and musty. There was a fireplace in the front room, with a circle of chairs in front of it. There was an odd "museum" in one room off to the left, with glass cases of arrowheads and artifacts, and stuffed natural-history items such as owls. All this was dismantled later when a new librarian took over, and it was years before another Fairhope Museum was established.
And when a new library went up where Delchamps had built a modern building in the 1970's, there was tremendous controversy that this new librarian had had the bad judgment to put a copy of The Joy of Sex on the shelves. The librarian was fired and the mayor refused from then on to put any city funds into the maintenance of the library. Calvin Trillin came to Fairhope to write an article about the incident for The New Yorker. Our local library lost its innocence.
We are about to get a new library, over where the nut processing plant used to be. It is overwhelmingly huge; in fact, it will be considered a media center, and is said to fill a need for meeting spaces, a concert hall (I think) and all kinds of technological geegaws so necessary for modern life. I'm sure you knew this was coming: I'll miss the old wooden card catalog.
Even at the library today, if you're looking for an old book, you're apt to find it's been what they call deleted because it hasn't been checked out for its proscribed number of times. Not popular enough. There are just so many new books out there we have to make room for. Never mind those old first editions that earlier Fairhope women purchased to enrich the life of the townspeople.
My sister recently checked out a novel by Ellen Glasgow. She saw in it an inscription, "Presented by Marietta Johnson, Ada Womble, Shelby Holbrook." I told her this is a book that would be deleted soon because it isn't likely to be checked out often in the future, and that whoever works at the library wouldn't know the significance of the donors. I felt certain that the book should go to the local Marietta Johnson Museum.
That book never made it back to the library. The necessary fee of $10 was paid. I have it in my possession. It will soon be at the Museum.