The Public Library Saved My Family’s Life
Arizona mom celebrates gift of books and buildings so beloved by hardworking communities across America
It was nothing less than love at first sight. My first walk-through down what seemed like miles of aisles in our small town’s public library in northern New Jersey.
And not surprisingly, what brought it all back was watching online images of last week’s brutal, out-of-season East Coast snowstorm. For we Jersey kids know that cabin-fever feeling of having to stay indoors during heavy rainstorms and snowstorms that often meant no electricity for extended periods — with a book and candlelight as our best friends.
I doubt, however, this love for public libraries would have been possible without my mom and dad. They were from the Greatest Generation, having survived the Great Depression of 1929 along with WWII. They not only scrutinized every dollar spent and saved, they understood the importance of investing in a child’s future at an early age. For my sister and me, this meant access to the arts and sciences that extended beyond any classroom curriculum.
Indeed, I remember one miserably raw, winter day my dad drove me to the library. “It’s time we get you a library card. So suit up!” Ugh. That meant leggings, scarf, knit cap, mittens — the whole nine yards. But my inner whining was cut short as we entered hallowed glass doors.
My parents not only scrutinized every dollar spent and saved, they understood the importance of investing in a child’s future at any early age.
Indeed, it was a miracle moment. All at once, it seemed like a big, confusing world disappeared among the order and grandeur of books stacked in solemn discernment, holding the key to countless questions. My dad let go of my hand and I found a kindly looking librarian.
She peered at me over her glasses and I asked: “Your library cards will let me borrow any book for free?”
She smiled. “Yes, so long as you follow the rules and take good care of the books you borrow.”
I nodded, hoping she knew I would never hurt anything as sublime as a book. She then asked, “Do you have any special subject you’d like to read about?”
I told her that my favorite books were stories of real-life heroes that braved impossible odds — and helped people in the end. She ushered me to a section labeled “Biography.” I had no idea what the word meant and I didn’t want to embarrass myself by asking, so I perused the shelves looking for titles and names I might recognize.
Among spotless shelves of bejeweled colored books — I chose two: the biographies of Joan of Arc and Mahatma Gandhi. When I went to check them out, the librarian nodded and beamed with pleasure. “These are two very interesting choices.” Having no idea what she meant, on our way out to the car, I held my library card and books protectively against my little chest as buried treasure.
Little did I know that this journey would be a life-changer. For in later years, I would never have excelled in English literature or any other area of academia — had my dad not driven his little girl downtown that day. Like so many other youngsters, when given half a chance, they will seek to understand themselves and a troubled world.
Nonetheless, no matter how often I made use of our public library, no one could match my dad’s love for reading. A WWII veteran with distinction and a staunch Republican — he was wary of any tax that siphoned away his hard-earned income that supported our family. One stand-alone exception, however, was local taxes and donations that supported our public library.
And although my dad passed a few years ago at 98 years old, I am proud to say he never purchased a single book in his entire life. Neither would he accept one as a gift. He called it “highway robbery.” When we asked why, he explained.
“It’s bad enough the government taxes people every which way to get extra dough they don’t even use for the right reasons. But taxes paid for public libraries works because we all get our money’s worth!”
For example, at 90 years old, having lived in the same town his entire life, one particular encounter between my dad and a young assistant librarian became legend. “Sir,” he addressed my dad respectfully, “I hope you don’t mind but I have a question.” My dad smiled and gestured the go-ahead. “Well, I was wondering … given your age and all … have you just about read every book by now?”
My dad replied with his signature way of holding his cards-close-to-the-vest:
His reply, however, might not have been as winsomely wry if the library reflected many across our nation in dire need of repair and upgrading. A decade ago, when my husband and I resided in a small farm community amid the Smokey Mountains of North Carolina, our town’s public library was in shambles. Most books were falling apart, along with a few impossibly slow desktop computers.
In stark contrast, we thank God we live in Arizona, a state that holds its public libraries in high esteem. My husband, son, and I estimate that among the three of us, we have saved approximately $10,000 a year by borrowing DVDs, audiobooks, ebooks, music CDs, and hardbacks among a wide variety of genres.
Moreover, it’s wonderful to be greeted and met by smiles from friendly staff and other bibliophiles. After all, library people understand each other as an insider’s group who gets it: Why spend hard-earned money in supermarket stores or online venues when we get the same products for free among friends?!
My millennial son is a good example of preferring people encounters to the virtual-reality-ones. He loves to cook – and borrows expensive gourmet cook books. The staff helps him select among their best, with the added bonus that he avoids those online social media distractions and ads that end up tempting him with a credit card purchase.
Also, I love watching our public library at work, insofar as meeting the needs of the young, middle, and older members who can’t afford their own smartphones, iPads, and personal computers. They make use of all the public library has to offer: classes for research, education, job training, meet-and-greets with authors, and up-to-date computers with free assistance from their tech-savvy staff.
All in all, whether it’s today or long ago, those dangerously rainy and snowy days bring me back to a burst-alert of delight — my lovely stack of library books. It was and is my ticket to ride a world, the stars and beyond. All that’s needed is a peaceful corner tucked away in our home with a flashlight and candle at the ready.
Bliss and blessed in one package of love.
The author, a retired attorney, is a published poet, writer, and columnist based in Arizona.