Los Angeles public libraries have recently earned a reprieve; they are once again open on Mondays after months of being closed that extra day each week due to budgetary constraints. I’m hoping it lasts because, unsurprisingly, I firmly believe in the need for these institutions, places of learning and imagination and resources for so many.
I’m not much for using the library myself these days, given my little book-buying problem, plus the great backlog of manuscripts always waiting for my attention. But as a child, the library was my home away from home, especially in summer when I was not one for a structured schedule; my mother rarely sent me to camp once school let out, but rather sent me up the street to our local library branch. I lived on one end of a small park that was divided into two sections. The half closest to my home housed the softball diamonds, tennis courts, swings and a small playground, while the far section, divided from the first by a narrow road, held a pond surrounded by sweeping willows and looping paths that crossed it in several places with arching wooden bridges. Beyond that far end of the park was our local library, a sturdy two-story brick-and-stone affair with a flagpole and two white stone benches out front and a white painted cupola at the top. The first floor housed reference and adult books, both fiction and nonfiction, while the upper level was home to the children’s books and to records.
Every summer my mother would sign me up for the library’s summer reading program, and each week for eight weeks I would venture over on the assigned day and time to sit with other children my age while the librarian, Miss Bell, read on that week’s theme. Each week was something different: mysteries, foreign folk stories, adventure, biography, and so on. At the end of the hour, we would choose a book to check out from the cart reserved for that day’s group, all of them in the same genre. The idea was to read the book on your own by the following week’s meeting.
I, of course, always needed more than one book. We were only allowed one from the cart, to guarantee everyone had plenty of options to choose from, but that still left the rest of the library for me to explore. I would load up on books, as many as I could reasonably carry with me back through the park, and off I’d go. If the weather was pleasant, not too hot or humid, I would invariably stop along the way and climb up into my favorite tree to dig into my haul, unable to bring myself to wait until I reached home. Once or twice my mother came looking for me, wondering where I’d got off to when I was hours late. And the answer was always somewhere different; my body may have been in that tree, but the rest of me was in Oz, or Narnia, or Mary Poppins’s London, or the barnyard with Charlotte and Wilbur.
I suspect most devoted readers have a library story of their own, a fondness for the place that contributed to their love of books. Author Alan Bennett shares his early library memories over at the London Review of Books, and it’s interesting me to see what a different selection of books he recalls, given his upbringing in a different time and place, even as the general spirit of his memories feels comfortably familiar despite their differences.
What do you recall about your early library experiences?