I couldn't have been much older than 7 or 8, but maybe I was only 6. My brother and I were staying with my grandparents in Monticello for a few days. The three little girls were not with us. It was just the two of us big kids.
I remember sitting on the back porch. I remember eating sliced mushrooms my grandmother had pan-fried in a tiny cast iron skillet (thus beginning my lifelong love of mushrooms fried in butter). I remember our daily outing to the Allerton Library.
We were visiting for a substantial amount of time, more than a few days. Long enough to develop a library routine. Long enough to know where to find the books I wanted to read on the shelves: "Old Mother West Wind," "Uncle Wiggly's Airship." Long enough to walk right to the shelf where I had found a special book yesterday and pick up reading where I left off.
At first, my grandmother accompanied us, but at some point, she decided I could be trusted to walk my little brother to the library, just the two of us. I felt proud and confident. Just a few blocks to Independence Street, and that was easy to remember, because Independence Day was the Fourth of July, and then walk until we could see the big horse's head. That was the library!
I always made sure to give that statue a pat on the nose before climbing the stairs. Once there, I could dive into whatever story I wanted and get lost. Come to think of it, I'm not sure I could tell time yet, but if I could, I certainly couldn't be trusted to keep track of it when surrounded by aisles and aisles of books. I'll bet Grandma met us at the library to take us home again — or at least she knew where to find us when she wanted us.
I still remember how the library made me feel at that early age. It was an escape, but it was also an important step toward self-reliance and self-determination. I could pick any book I wanted. I could read it without help. Wandering quietly through the shelves, I felt welcome and grateful for a quiet stretch of time, stories awaiting.
My home library was in Champaign, the old stone building across from West Side Park. It was not in walking distance, but my mother would take us there. Five noisy kids would climb the stairs and suddenly hush as we entered. We'd climb the big staircase to the children's section and pick out our weekly quota of books.
I remember the day my mother took me to the stacks — different from the warm, welcoming shelves in the main part of the library. The stacks were industrial-strength, metal stairs and claustrophobic shelving. The floors were glass, and if people walked above, you could see the soles of their shoes. I don't know how many stories of shelves were stacked, one upon the other, 6-foot ceilings. When it was time to check out the books, we would take them to the desk where one friendly librarian sat. In those days, the books each held a pocket with a card. She would file the card from the book under our names and stamp the due date in the book.
Maybe we couldn't walk to our library, but we could walk to the Bookmobile a block away. It came to the neighborhood school Tuesdays (and it was a sad Tuesday when I lost track of the days and forgot to go). The big truck would sit, quietly purring (probably diesel). I would step up the metal stairs out of the sunlight and heat and into the cool, crowded space.
It was a little like entering another world, slightly magical. It was one long aisle of books, floor to ceiling. Stocked with different books every week. A child could sit on a wooden stool and read for a while or simply gather a stack of books and take them home.
The Bookmobile is long gone of course, and the library in Champaign has moved from the quiet, stone house across from the park to a busy, glass hub across from the school. The horse's head still guards the books in Monticello, but for how long will children be able to walk over to the library after school or on a summer's afternoon?
I hear they're going to build a new one on the outskirts of town. Without bus service, how will a child walk with her little brother to the library to enter a world of independence and imagination?
Walk in beauty; read in peace; blessed be.
Mary Lucille Hays lives in Birdland near White Heath. She is passionate about reading and about the free access to information that libraries provide. You can read more of her writings at http://www.letterfrombirdland.blogspot.com. Hays can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.