The soul of where you live

May 26, 2008

A few weeks ago the library in a town I used to cover had to close. There had been a problem with an ancient water heater, and the resultant water leak had forced the Dillsburg Area Library to close while cleanup was begun.

It was like learning that an old friend had fallen seriously ill.

I did not spend a lot of time at the Dillsburg Library. But there is something, for those who love them, which makes every library home.

When I was a kid, our community library lived in the old granite former home of some wealthy hot-shot from long ago. It was a wonderful place with creaky staircases and deep windowsills where the sun poured in on long, tall wooden shelves packed with books.

Here and there stood heavy oak reading tables, dark with age and use.

I read a lot. Not always the very best stuff, but constantly, especially through summer vacations. I tore through almost every book in the science-fiction category, sometimes at the summertime rate of five or so books a week. In there among the aliens and faster-than-light travel I managed to read people like John Steinbeck, Jack Kerouac, Thomas Wolfe, and others.

In the summer of my 12th year, I tried to check out Kerouac’s “On The Road.”

You have to understand that at the checkout desk at our library was The Bird Lady. I called her that because she was thin, angular, beaky of nose, unpleasant, and the last bastion of morality in the modern world. She always dressed in black. I’m sure she was only trying to prevent an impressionable mind (mine) falling under the spell of an artistic, free-thinking, poetic loser (that would be Kerouac.)

She wouldn’t let me check it out.

“You’re not old enough,” she said, snatching the book away and clutching it to the sooty black, nubbled fabric that covered her bosom. “You will have to bring a note from your parents.”

I slouched dejectedly back to the vast beige Dodge where my mother waited. I plopped down on the seat with the measly two or three books I had been permitted to check out.

“What’s the matter?” my mother asked.

I hesitated. What if “On The Road” was (gulp.) A Dirty Book? Not that I minded the idea, of course, but I certainly didn’t want to admit to my own mother that I’d wanted to check out ADB right there in front of her, God, and the vulturine librarian. I’d be exiled. Grounded. Forbidden to read anything unless it had passed muster before every beady-eyed old lady, pastor, and parent from here to yonder.

I sucked it up.

“The lady at the desk said I couldn’t check out a book I wanted to read,” I said. “She said I wasn’t old enough.”

What book, she wanted to know. I told her the title and said it was about a guy and some of his friends that just sort of traveled around the country learning stuff. That really is all I knew.

“Come with me,” my mother said, and marched me up the gray stone steps and into the dark, musty rooms and to the librarian’s perch.

I have to mention here that my mother was a SPAR during World War II. SPARS are like WACS in the Army or WAVES in the Navy. SPARS were the women’s branch of the U.S. Coast Guard. For part of that time, she was the equivalent of a drill sergeant.

Getting sassy with Mom was not a good tactic.

The biddy of the books looked up as Mom moved at flank speed up to the desk, me bobbing apprehensively in her wake. Mom asked to see the book.

The librarian handed it to her. Mom looked at the dust jacket, read the blurb, or at least scanned it.

She dropped the book on the desk and pointed at me.

“This is my son Terry. As far as I’m concerned, he can read any book he finds in this library. He would like to check it out now,”

I was trying hard not to grin like a monkey. The librarian looked as though she had bitten into a piece of bad fish, but checked the book. I think she used a bit more force than was necessary to stamp the due date on the little card inside the back cover, but maybe I was just imagining things.

Funny, but the incident made me read a lot more “serious” literature after that. It was as though with that freedom came more responsibility. This was serious stuff, this reading business.

That old library is long gone now. The stone building is now offices for something. My hometown library is now an ultramodern affair with computers, recessed lighting, modern tables, all that. But they still have Kerouac, Steinbeck, Wolfe, and writers who have come along since then, adding their own voices to the conversation that a culture holds with itself, age after age.

A library is a lot more than a warehouse stuffed with books and electronic media. Maybe it’s the collective memory of a people, its soul, even. A place where the ideas and passions lie, dormant, like seeds that will sprout over and over, for as long as we choose to go to the trouble of looking for them.

I rarely ever used the library in Dillsburg when I worked in town. But it was so good knowing it was there. A community without a library is sort of like one of those characters in the classic horror film “Night of The Living Dead,” moving around but with no real inner life.

I understand the Dillsburg Library has recently reopened, with new carpet, and the damage repaired. I hope to stop by for a visit soon. I hope the people who live in the area do the same. I hope they realize what they have.

© 2007 Marsh Creek Media,
Gettysburg, Pa.
“Burger to Go” is a product of me and my company, Marsh Creek Media and, as such, I am solely responsible for its content.
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