Going to the Library

Ferdinand Uebel, 1950  Courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

Ferdinand Uebel, 1950 Courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

Early on, my library card was one of my most precious possessions. This small piece of heavy card stock, about three by four inches, was my passport to the adventure of other worlds, and also to my own adventures. My first card was issued at the bookmobile that came on Fridays to my elementary school, Chelsea Heights, near Como Park. I still remember my first trip to the bookmobile. Not knowing what I was doing, and with few adults to help, I looked at book-jacket pictures in the adult fiction section. The one I liked best was of a man dressed in black on a funny-looking mountain. When I brought it to the librarian, she told me the book was too hard for me, and gently led me to the picture book section where she helped me make other choices.

But that book-jacket picture was engraved into my mind, and I never forgot it. Years later, when I was reading at a much more advanced level, I went back to the Cs, always remembering where I had found it. Searching through the book jackets, suddenly there it was: A. J. Cronin’s Keys to the Kingdom, a novel about a missionary priest in China. This book has had a continuous influence throughout my life. Even as a child, I became a kind of missionary for libraries and books. After gaining parental permission, I took every child on our block to get his or her first library card. It was exciting to start these kids on their reading journeys!

My favorite library was Hamline Branch Library, located on Minnehaha Avenue a half block east of Snelling. A small, unassuming brick building, it housed treasures. In the summertime, the book-reading program was always a big draw. I was good at reading books. In fifth and sixth grades, I read six books a week, and the summer was no different. I could easily have read more, but six was the limit to check out. I would plow through two the first day, and then ration out the other four over the next six days. People called me a bookworm, and I was proud of that epithet, even as I cringed at some of the other nicknames kids gave me. Hamline Library had so many more books than the bookmobile: shelf after shelf, a whole building’s worth of books to revel in.

Hamline Library had other gifts too. In the summer the building was cool and hushed. On many afternoons it was a quiet oasis of tranquility. Sometimes I would go to the encyclopedia shelves. Getting them off the shelves was a challenge for a little girl like Societyme. The World Book was the best. What wondrous knowledge was inside those book covers! I would pick one at random, settle myself at one of the huge heavy library tables, and lose myself in reading whatever caught my eye. I drank in the serenity and quiet that accompanied these hours, forever melding together learning and peacefulness. My love of learning was nurtured by that fortunate juxtaposition.

I became very efficient at checking out books. First I opened the books to their back covers with the book card in its envelope, and then I stacked the books one on top of the other. That way, the librarian could quickly pull out each card and stamp the due date in purple ink. It was fun to see which books were the most popular, as shown by how many due dates were stamped and how close the dates were in time to one another.

Going home with a stack of heavy books was another matter. I walked the half block to the bus stop on Snelling and waited for the 4A or 4B bus. Sometimes the wait was as long as twenty minutes, and there was no bench to help ease the weight in my arms. If it was blistering hot, I would slip into the blessedly cool drugstore on the corner, Lloyd’s Pharmacy. But I was always anxious about missing the bus. So I would peek out the door every few minutes to see if it was coming—the air conditioning bill must have been a little bit higher on my library days! Safely on the bus, I would peruse my treasures, planning the order in which to read them. Once decided, I’d begin right then and there, delicious summer days and nights of reading ahead of me.

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