Sunday, April 24, 2011

Where the Books Are

Remember that old story about Willie Sutton who when asked why he robbed banks replied--because that's where the money is?

Well, here's a take-off--libraries are where the books are. Only, hopefully, no one robs them. But sometimes they do take out all the books. Perhaps you wonder why I made that reference--a blogger friend of mine sent me a story a couple months ago about how a small town saved its library, which was scheduled to close, by coming to the library repeatedly and eventually checking out all the books, so the library could NOT be closed. (Thank you, Philip, for sending that wonderful story.)

So, why write about libraries today? After all--this is Easter Sunday and many of the blogs I read have that as their theme. A most fitting theme. The promise of new life is all around us in spring--plants spring to life emerging from the ground, birds return and build nests. All the world bustles with the promise of new life.

I guess I decided to write about libraries on Easter--well, no good reason. Just because. Oh, yes--and because on this date the Library of Congress was established in 1800. At that time, our capital was in Philadelphia. When Congress authorized its transfer to what became Washington, DC, included in that bill was a call for a reference library with "such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress — and for putting up a suitable apartment for containing them therein ..."

The original library was burned when the British burned it in 1814 during the War of 1812. The British burned the Capitol building, and since the library was housed there, it too burned.

To begin the rebuilding of the library, Thomas Jefferson donated his entire personal library which contained some 6,500 books that he had collected over his lifetime.

Eventually, a lovely new building was erected to house the library, where it remains today. First opened to the public in 1897, the Newly built Library of Congress is now the largest library in the world. Its website points out that:

Today's Library of Congress is an unparalleled world resource. The collection of more than 144 million items includes more than 33 million cataloged books and other print materials in 460 languages; more than 63 million manuscripts; the largest rare book collection in North America; and the world's largest collection of legal materials, films, maps, sheet music and sound recordings.

I would not have known about the Library of Congress founding date were it not for The Writer's Almanac--yes, I have referred to this gem of information before. From the Almanac, I also learned the power of books in the lives of famous people.

John Grisham, certainly one of the most successful contemporary writers, developed his love of books through libraries.

He grew up all over the Deep South. Every time his family moved somewhere new, they'd join the local Southern Baptist church, find the public library, and get new library cards.

Langston Hughes writes movingly about books and how they gave assuaged his loneliness.

Langston was fascinated by the streetcars in Lawrence, and he wanted to be a streetcar conductor when he grew up. But he also loved books. The Lawrence Public Library was one of the only integrated public buildings in the city, and he spent as much time there as possible, trying to make sense of his extreme loneliness, a combination of feeling abandoned by his parents and feeling left out of fun things that most boys could do, because of segregation laws. He said, "Then it was that books began to happen to me, and I began to believe in nothing but books and the wonderful world in books where if people suffered, they suffered in beautiful language, not in monosyllables, as we did in Kansas."

Finally, Ronald McNair:
Ronald's voracious appetite for learning began with libraries.

Ronald turned into a serious reader, eating through the books his family bought, and borrowing books from friends and neighbors. Though after reading all the books, he still longed for more books, wishing he could stand in the aisles of Lake City's whites-only "public" library. Finally, when Ronald was about nine years old, he took action. "He decided to go to the library, and he refused to leave," recalled his mother later. "The library workers called me," continued Pearl. "I rushed over and found police cars outside the building. Ron was sitting on the charge desk, holding a pile of books in his lap. His little legs hung down, not reaching the floor. I was pleased that he didn't want any trouble, just the books. He wanted to study." Young McNair had changed a small piece of history. "From then on," his mother recalled proudly, "Ron was allowed to borrow books from the library whenever he wished.
So, celebrate today. Celebrate spring and new life. Celebrate resurrection. And also celebrate libraries--they preserve all the wonderful knowledge we have.
PHOTO CREDIT: Higgins, Jim, photographer. "The Jefferson Building, The Library of Congress, Washington, D.C." Jefferson's Legacy: A Brief History of the Library of Congress.


Anvilcloud said...

I just visited ours yesterday.

possumlady said...

Oh, I LIVED in libraries growing up. Especially in summer (it was air conditioned and my house was not). My mother never understood the books I brought home "The Life of the Deer", etc. She wondered why I didn't bring home "normal" books like Little House on the Prairie.

Also, I loved our school library. Going to a Catholic grade school the books were heavy on the lives of Saints! Is it any wonder why little Catholic girls dreamed of being nuns, then becoming saints??

When I first moved to DC, my first home was sharing an old townhouse a block from the Senate office buildings and a few blocks from the Library of Congress. Loved telling people my local library was the Library of Congress!

Now, my sister, who has retired from teaching, is a volunteer docent/tour guide at the Library of Congress and LOVES it! Let me know if you ever come down--she usually works on Wednesdays.

Ruth said...

I love libraries, worked in one while I attended university and continue to volunteer in one now. But I notice fewer children signing out books over the past few years. Our public libraries have cut back on the number of staff because circulation is down. My book reading is also down for a number of reasons (including blog reading!)

KGMom said...

AC--good for you. Keep supporting your local library.

Christine--how cool is have your local library be the Library of Congress.

Ruth--I agree that fewer children seem to have that love of books. I think they still love reading--but there are so many competing places to get information from--not the least the Internet.

Tossing Pebbles in the Stream said...

Libraries played a role in my life. We lived outside a small town that had a very modest library. My mother was a great reader bringing home six or seven large books everytime she went to the library. She would leave everything undone until they were read. After madly catching up on her housework she returned to the library to get more books. She took us with her and we had library cards at a very young age.

When she had exhausted the offering of the local libary we travelled about 25 miles by bus and then street car to reach a larger library. While I was not an easy fluent reader like my mother was (as a young child the kids liked to sit near her in the silent movies as she could read the text on the screen easily and well) She loved to share what she read with others. I was often the willing listener. Many of the best books she read to me.

I have fond memories of those years of my learning , both the visits to the libraries and being read to at the kitchen table.

Ginnie said...

You've inspired me to write a blog entry about our little library here in town. It's quite a fascinating story.
I fear for our libraries with all the technology taking away from actual books. These things will never replace the feeling that I get by actually holding a book.