Monday, January 23, 2012

Thinking about Libraries

By Leslie Budewitz

[Originally published at Suspense Your Disbelief,]

“I have always imagined that Paradise would be a kind of library.”
– Jorge Luis Borges

My first memory of a library is the Parmly Billings Library in Billings, Montana. The city was named for Northern Pacific Railroad president Frederick Billings, whose son Parmly was the only family member to live there. When Parmly died of pneumonia at 25 in 1888, his parents gave the city a building site and seed money for a library. Built of local sandstone in the Romanesque style, it served as the library from 1901 until the late 1960s. I thought it was a castle.

By the 1960s, even with several additions, the castle was so crowded that most books were kept in inaccessible stacks and brought out by request–except for the children’s section. There, Curious George and Mike the Steam Shovel reigned. The Borrowers spun their magic, and I could easily imagine walking through a wardrobe into Narnia.

Libraries needn’t be grand. The castle was eventually replaced by an old warehouse, which offered space and parking, and didn’t seem to cramp Curious George’s style–just like kids, he’s curious anywhere. For a while, a children’s branch anchored a shopping center. And Tuesday mornings in summer, I peddled my pink Schwinn to Rose Park to meet the bookmobile, emptied my twin bike baskets, and filled them up again. The ride home was uphill, but my excitement made the ride easier.

Now I live in a small town with a county branch library. The online catalog lets me sit at home and order books from other branches or the statewide library partnership. It’s great technology, both in scattered rural states like Montana and busy systems with dozens of branches.

But I miss the physical spaces. I miss those accidental finds, the books you come across mis-shelved, or when you kneel down to look at something and your eye falls on something else, or the book that’s just been returned and screams to go home with you.

In law school, I spent much of my waking time in the library, studying. (And some of my sleeping time, too–I occasionally fell asleep on the floor in “the stacks,” the windowless basement rooms crammed with bound volumes of law reviews and obscure references.) The main reading room featured classic oak library tables, some tucked in book-lined alcoves with arched windows of leaded glass. In one alcove, a maple vine poked its way in through a pinhole in the glass and twined down the stone walls.

The main library at Notre Dame is a tall building with a mural outside showing Jesus with his arms raised to heaven. The building faces the end of the football stadium where the students sit, so of course, it’s called “Touchdown Jesus.”

Inside the library, I came across a pink cloth-bound book called Law Careers for Girls. I could hardly believe it was still on the shelves, or that it recommended careers in tax law, because women are good with numbers and details. I’m sure my tax prof would have howled if I’d showed him the book.

Sometimes you can’t find those accidental discoveries again, no matter how many librarians you enlist in the search. I’d still like another look at a book in the Seattle Public Library on pairing American quilts and Asian furniture in design.

When I worked in downtown Seattle in the 1980s, the library occupied a squat black glass building that did nothing to inspire reading or writing, at least on the outside. The new library, built in 2004, is so wildly creative that it’s been both a prize-winner and a bit of a controversy. The exterior makes you wonder "what building is that?"

I always imagine the interior to be made of giant crayons, bent and molded and reshaped. Like libraries and their contents–offering so much more than books these days–do to our thinking, our imagination, our plans for the afternoon.

Kind of like Curious George in the castle, I think.

What’s your favorite library memory?

Leslie Budewitz is the author of Books, Crooks and Counselors: How to Write Accurately About Criminal Law and Courtroom Procedure (Quill Driver Books, October 2011). She is a practicing lawyer and a mystery writer living in northwest Montana. Read an excerpt and more articles for writers, or send her a question, at


Ramona said...

a) I love the name Parmly.

b) My childhood library was in a small converted house. It felt like a house. It was destroyed in Hurricane Katrina and rebuilt. I visited a year ago. It's in a slightly larger converted house, with a town museum attached. Still feels like a house.

c) The county where I live now is in the process of upgrading all of the libraries, one by one. Each new library is spanking new and impressive. But you know, I miss the feel of the little house.

Leslie Budewitz said...

Ramona, I cringed when you said your childhood library had been destroyed in Katrina -- so glad to know it's been re-opened in another old house, and the museum connection is a natural. I do think an inviting space helps children bond with the books and the experience of going to the library. In Helena, Montana, the children's section is marked by a giant green dragon!

Lark said...

My childhood library was the Sandy Spring public library, housed in an old Friends' Meeting House (since moved to the campus of Sandy Spring Friends School, where I grew up.) My favorite library building was the old mansion that housed Oberlin's library -- the town, not the college -- though I also have fond memories of wandering the college library stacks and studying (or snoozing) in the "womb chairs." And my favorite library currently is the Central Rappahannock Regional Library system, which has a terrific selection, 7 or 8 branches, and a great staff -- plus an online catalog, so I can put a book from any branch on hold and pick it up at "my" branch.

Leslie Budewitz said...

Lark, an old Friends' house -- how lovely! And yes, gotta love the ability to request a book from another branch on line and have it delivered closer to home -- Library Magic!

L.C. Mohr said...

Studs Terkel said "All you need in life is truth and beauty and you can find both at the Public Library."

Sylvia A. Nash said...

Leslie, your post caused me to remember a row of books at a tiny local grocery store where you could check out the books just like at the library. It was so long ago, I had forgotten it, and I don't remember any details. The books must have been left there by a book mobile.

The public library where I live now is small in comparison to many, but it has some of everything, including computers patrons can use. This was a blessing when I was without internet service! Our library also has a wonderful genealogy room for which I'm equally grateful.

Besides the books and the technology and a "study room," I appreciate the staff in both the genealogy room and the main library, many of whom are volunteers. They have helped me more than once find just the book I didn't even know I wanted.

Warren Bull said...

When visiting Juneau, Alaska we discovered the library built about a parking garage in the harbor. It was the perfect height to watch cruise ships dock so we could see the passengers unload and then load again. The furniture was comfortable. It would have been a great place to stay all day on cold snowy day.

Leslie Budewitz said...

L.C., I'm stealing that quote!

Sylvia and Warren, your stories conjure up delightful images. I'm imagining checking out books in a grocery store, then curling up to read and watch the ship traffic. That last image reminds me that Emily Dickinson wrote "a book is like a frigate -- it takes us lands away."

Thanks to you all for sharing!

Dana Stabenow said...

My childhood library was one room in the basement of city hall that smelled of salt water because it was built on the boardwalk and twice a year the high spring and fall tides threatened to float it off its pilings. It was so crammed with shelves and books you had to turn sideways to get from the P's to the T's. We had one librarian, Susan Bloch English, who built the library herself from scratch. It was open once a week on Monday evenings, 7 to 10pm. You could check out 4 books at a time.

The most enduring memory of my childhood will always and ever be going home the first time from Susan's library, clutching The Hidden Staircase and The Clue in the Old Stagecoach in my arms. Remember the Nancy Drews in the fat red editions? Those were the ones.

Anonymous said...

The library in my home town is an example of marble and mahogany of Victorian times. It is is the process of being revamped toward modern needs while keeping the old facade.
The library I like the best was in West Brookfield, MA where my family vacationed. The librarian always let me take books even tho I was just"visiting". A quiet cool place. Meant a lot.

Laura Strathman Hulka said...

I grew up in a town with a splendid library - Hayward, CA. Sitting in the middle of a park, this building was a second home to me. Back in those days (the 60s) mom or dad would drop me off for a couple of hours of childhood wanderings. A beautiful fountain graced the front lawn, and Doggie Diner was across the street - such a lovely time of my life! Thanks for encouraging these old memories of how important libraries were in my past!

mary said...

In Hamilton,Mo the library was one those old dusty places where sunshine was littered with dust motes and the entire place smelled lie books. Only someone whose library was like this warm , cluttered, dusty and a bit neglected knows that smell which was ambrosia to me. I met edgar rice burroughs, agatha christie, jane austen, charles dickens, beatrice small, winston churchill there and my life is richer for it.

Anonymous said...

My childhood library was actually a bookmobile. We lived on the far east side of Tacoma and it was about a mile to a bricks and mortar library. The librarian was wonderful at handling a class at a time as they parked outside our grade school. She brought special things for those of us who "bought her out" each time she came. Tacoma has a wonderful library system and works well with Pierce count libraries also. We can go to either one. My local library is the main branch - The original Carnegie library is now the genealogy section - well used and always willing to lend a hand - attached is the main branch - very "user friendly". Until a few years ago I still saw librarians who had been there since the 70's. What a body of knowledge.

Judy V. said...

I grew up in a very small town where the major activities for children was the Saturday afternoon serials at the theatre and the public library. Mom would take us there for the story time and to check out books. I would spend hours there trying to decide which books I wanted. During college I earned money as an assistant children's librarian at the college. I also worked for a year after college at a county library on their bookmobile. Now I am a member of the Friends of the Library in our local town. Love my books!

Anonymous said...

I was so good at schoolwork that my jr. high didn't know what to do with me, so they parked me in the little one-room library of that little private religious school, filled mostly with Jesus books...Then I found one, about war, and death and gruesome injustice, teror and was a book about a conscienttious objecter in WWII. First time I knew, in my strict religious upbringing, that you could have a voice against authority, find a way around the beaurocracy, say no and live congruent with your true self and still be a moral person. I thank that litle library and my lonely hours without chums for letting me glimpse a world where one small voice is heard.

Anonymous said...

When I was very small, we lived out in the country. Five miles from town. One car, and summers were too busy to get into town during library hours. But, the Bookmobile came to our house every two weeks! Right in the driveway! Magic! And, the best part was that Mrs. Pope, the Children's Librarian, would have given the driver a stack of books she picked out just for me! I had started reading at about three years old, and by the time I was seven I'd read everything in that section. Mrs. Pope would check with Mother and Daddy to see what interested me that week, and load me up! She'd send a sack of books for Mother, but Daddy would walk to the library from his office every week. In the winter, we'd all go on Saturday morning. When I was eight, Mrs. Pope asked my parents to leave me there while they did errands, because she and Miss Lucy (the head librarian) needed a helper. Goodness, how I loved that library and those women!
I am posting from my phone, and can't get the google thing to work. My name is Kathryn Campbell.

Linda said...

My best library memories are about summers just north of St. Louis when I would ride my bike to the library (before they built the new one), and I'd fill up my bike basket with the 12 books allowed, race home and pick one out of the stack. I was the kid under the covers with the flashlight, so the next week, having finished all 12, I was back for more. Those were the golden summers of discovery -- Ellery Queen (I'd already gone through ALL the Nancy Drew books), a little Sherlock, science fiction, Black Beauty. I remember the day my Mom came into my room to find me prostrate on the bed, SOBBING about Black Beauty. Oh, how I loved those summers. Now, I have more books than I have room for, read as often as I can get even a few minutes, and am on the board of and run the adult programming for our local library branch. I'll never get enough of books or libraries. I'm grateful to have had a great library and its staff when I was in those discovery years. Oh... the journey's I've taken!

Anonymous said...

Llike Dana, I grew up in a small town and the library was in an old house, with stairs that creaked. When we got a spanking new building it was amazing. It was astounding. It was HUGE! (Until I went back a few years ago and realized how little it really is.) I had two friends who loved to read and we challenged each other to read every book on a particuler shelf. I married one of them. Now we have a dining room overrun by books.