By Leslie Budewitz
[Originally published at Suspense Your Disbelief, http://www.jennymilchman.com/blog/]
“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 www.LawandFiction.com.