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Reflections on a small town library, library ladies, censorship and all

One Writer’s Perspective

If human beings are divided into word people and numbers people, I am most definitely a word person. I have been completely enamored with words all my life: hearing them, speaking them, writing them and — oh, wonder of wonders — reading them. I think this love affair with words must have started very early. As the baby of a large family, there was always someone around to talk to me and language was important from the beginning.

Words of course lead most delightfully to the printed word and for as long as I can remember that leads to books. Books, glorious books! All bibliophiles know what I mean. They are marvelous instruments to take you outside yourself and into a myriad of adventures, feelings, knowledge and fun.

It’s good to be in the midst of books; to see them and feel their presence even when I’m not reading them. I firmly believe every room in a home should have at least a few books in it. And of course, bookstores are wonderful places where I go as often as possible.

However, I grew up just outside a small town where there was no bookstore and for many years there was no library. The members of a venerable woman’s club set out to rectify the situation and started a public library. A member’s husband donated space and the number of books was limited but grew steadily through donations and acquisitions.

The ladies took turns acting as librarians and some of them took their duties seriously. Not only did they dispense books, they felt it was their duty to act as surrogate mothers and censors. I figured if I had a legitimate library card, any book I chose was game. Not so in this bucolic hamlet where everyone knew everyone. A typical exchange went something like this.

“Ooh, dear, does your mama know you’re checking out this book?”

Writhing in front of the librarian’s desk, head down, I mumbled something like, “Ireallydon’tthinkshe’dcarebecause sheknowsIliketoreadalotofdifferentthings.” All in one pauseless breath.

“Well, yes, uh, but this is Lolita and you’re only 10 years old,” she tittered in response. “Why don’t we call and make sure it’s okay.”

Then too, these library ladies thought we were supposed to read books in a certain order.

“Now, let’s just put back ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ until AFTER you’ve read ‘Tom Sawyer,’” the advice was handed down. “That’s because Huck Finn is introduced in ‘Tom Sawyer’ and you’ll enjoy it much more if you read ‘Tom Sawyer’ first.”

Well, that was easy to circumvent. I dutifully took Tom Sawyer home with me and returned it a week later, unread. Then I read Huck Finn and absolutely loved it. Later I did double back and read “Tom Sawyer” but in my own good time.

Another irritating rule of this library was that only four books per week per patron were allowed. That was another no brainer. Because I lived outside the city limits and that was officially The County, I could meet the bookmobile on its weekly rounds. Four books there and four books from the library in town and I was set for a week of summer reading.

But time marches on and so did that small public library. It moved into a spacious building with a reading room overlooking the river and the collection (that’s what library ladies call the books in a library) greatly increased. By the time my children came along there were no restrictions on the number of books that could be checked out. There was even a librarian with a college degree in library science who never threatened to call anyone’s mama.

As a married woman living in that same town, I was still visiting the library to be in the company of books and to do my small part to make it better. The births of two of my children are associated with my loyalty to the library.

While working on a campaign to raise matching funds for the new building, I went into labor. Because it was the last day to get the list of donor names into the town’s newspaper, I ignored the coming storm and kept working away. Only, I did complain to the librarian, who slipped in the back and called my husband.

He soon appeared, wearing a look of panic. “We have to go. You can’t give birth in a public library.”

“I wish she hadn’t called you. I only need a few more minutes to finish.”

“The poor woman did not sign on here to become a midwife,” he said. “She’s practically hysterical.”

“Just tell her to start boiling water.”

“That’s not funny,” he hissed.

By the time the next one was born I was serving on the library’s board of trustees and had to miss a meeting to give birth. The same librarian was on duty and greatly relieved that I didn’t push my luck.

Today, with bookstores of all kinds and Internet book shopping, there’s still nothing like a public library, with or without the library ladies.

Coast-based freelance journalist Lynn Lofton writes regularly for the Mississippi Business Journal. Contact her at mbj@msbusiness.com.

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