Long before I could afford to buy books, I borrowed them. From friends, occasionally, traded back and forth like baseball cards, but mostly from the local library, where there always seemed to be an endless supply; whenever there wasn’t, the librarians themselves, somewhat miraculously, would borrow whatever I wanted from other libraries. Often the inter-library loan books traveled farther than I ever had, coming from the other side of the state in just a day or two.
Town was twelve miles away from our farm, but my father worked eighteen miles in the other direction, and once or twice a week my mother would drive us over to see him. He was a clerk in a grocery store, and often after she’d finished her own job delivering mail on a rural postal route, she’d go to help him fill the shelves of the dairy section or clean the cases of the frozen food aisle. My two sisters and I would come along, and while we were sometimes allowed to stack something safe and sturdy like yogurt cartons or half-gallons of milk, we were usually sent to read at the public library, where my parents would come and find us after they’d finished.
On top of all the other things they did for a living, my parents had a little trash business they ran from my father’s truck; he had engineered an old utility truck into something that could winch a jerry-rigged dumpster on and off again, carrying away one bin to the dump while leaving another behind. The library was one of their clients, so when they came to fetch us, they also came to fetch the trash. It was never lost on me that my parents worked so hard with their hands so that their daughters wouldn’t have to—partly because it was never lost on me that while we delighted in fairy tales and fictional worlds, they delighted in our delight.
For more than thirty years, my parents took care of the library’s trash, and for as long as I can remember that small-town library took care of me. The librarians raised me up from Dr. Seuss to Nancy Drew, from the Hardy Boys to Clive Cussler, and they helped me research everything that ever interested me: treasure galleons and national parks and indigenous peoples, the Civil War and the Trojan War, Jesus Christ and Johnny Cash. Many a school assignment was completed at one of their communal tables, and most of my research papers were built from a stack of books they helped me assemble.
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It’s the same everywhere I’ve ever lived. Libraries have always been there whenever I needed them. I have used them to find magazines I hadn’t even heard of and so didn’t yet know I wanted to subscribe to, for air conditioning in the sweltering summers when I didn’t have any at home, and to locate journal articles on specialized topics from academic databases. They have helped me meet deadlines by making printers available for a few pennies a page so I could review proofs in hard copy, and supplied a spot of internet when I needed to file a piece or download an editor’s notes on a draft. And the books, the glorious books: I love a book store, new or used, but where else can you browse through stacks of books so long out of print and so obscure that you didn’t even know you needed to read them, and pay nothing for the privilege?
Public libraries are also essential repositories of local stories and regional histories, and in that way, they helped make my book about small-town southern life possible. It was the libraries that had filed away bound newspapers, letting me read my way through years of what happened in this region of Alabama, down to the advertisements for the Piggly Wiggly and the local Feed & Seed; it was the libraries that had provided shelf space for privately printed family genealogies, helping me see what rarely makes it into the state and national history books; it was the libraries that had archived city directories and local municipal records, making it possible to track people’s movements across time. And it wasn’t just the small-town libraries that were remarkable; it was the librarians, too, who reliably helped me do the seemingly impossible—find a church no longer standing, say, or the full run of a tiny newspaper long since out of print.
The kind of history I wanted to write, indeed the kind of history I most want to read, is only possible because of small-town libraries like these. They aren’t just a space to work, but spaces for completed work, too, and I’ve been so moved to know my book has found a home in some of the very libraries that made me into a writer. Libraries are a renewable resource in that way. If we tend to them, by using them, of course, but also by funding them adequately, then they make more of themselves—creating new readers, and new things to read.
Featured image: @cristinarose via Twenty20