For many of us there’s a special place where we are always comfortable and content. It might be landing somewhere to start a trip, for some. The corner coffee shop appeals to many. Being in a theater or concert hall with the performance about to begin does it for others. For me, plunk me down in a library. Any library.
My earliest experience was in the 1930s when I loved to check out books from the Laurelhurst School library in Portland, Ore. I took so many home at once that when I returned them, the librarian made me tell her what the story in each book was to show her I had read it.
I frequented the Salem, Ore. library in my teen years — it was in biking distance — and spent many hours there. This was one of the more than 2,500 libraries that philanthropist Andrew Carnegie funded in small communities in the U.S. My mother worked and did not get to the library often but she claimed I could pick out books for her that she would like even better than if she chose them.
Summer vacations for our family were spent in the small coastal town of Nelscott, Ore. This beach community had a book rental store which was a constant delight to the readers in our family. With the kindly help of Earl Nelson — the proprietor, for whose family Nelscott was named — we chose books to keep us going on the foggy or rainy days that summer on the Oregon coast brings. We were happy curling up in our rented house, reading till the sun came out again.
Next came the University of Oregon library. When not in class, freshmen were encouraged to spend time there. A special spot was the browsing room, which featured a comfortable sofa. A longtime friend still remembers trying to catch a nap there, when the librarian approached and admonished, “We do NOT SLEEP in the Browsing Room!”
Most of my adult life has been spent in Palo Alto, Calif., a city of 64,000, unique in that it maintains branch libraries in its neighborhoods — four of them in addition to the main branch, and one just for children. A few years back there was a proposal to build one new state-of-the-art library for the entire city. The outcry from users of the branches was so fierce that funds are being spent on all the libraries — main and branches.
One of my long-term goals has been to visit all the presidential libraries in the country. So far I’ve made it to four — FDR’s, Ronald Reagan’s, LBJ’s and Bill Clinton’s. All impressive and what a good history refresher to visit one.
The library that made the greatest impression of all was on a trip to Europe 25 years ago. It’s the Abbey at Melk, Austria. It started in 1089 as a Benedictine Monastery and has long been a center for research on medieval manuscripts. It took its present-day form in the 1700s and is a Baroque masterpiece. Everyday tourists can’t visit the 12 ornate rooms that make up the library, but just peeping into a couple of them was a treat. I remember beautiful art and ceilings of blue, white, and gold. Collections include editions of the Bible, theology, geography and astronomy. It perches majestically on a rocky outcrop overlooking the Danube River and the town of Melk.
So here’s to libraries, and the people who make them what they are. I’ll always want to peep into them, wherever I may be!