Libraries in my life

I have been a library lover all my life. It’s been a passion of mine. 

As a child, my local library, a two-story red brick building, was an easy stop on the way home from school or a destination for a walk on a Saturday. I always went by myself and wandered favorite sections, exploring new ones when I felt courageous. Although these days in my old neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey, my elementary school has been converted to condos and the YM/WHA next to the high school, where we went to dance, is now an annex to the school, the Weequahic branch (the high school and area has the same name) is still alive.

Harold and the Purple Crayon may have been the first book I checked out. I picked it up off a book truck, not yet familiar with the stacks. I loved to draw, so I loved Harold. When I brought it back, I stood a few steps inside the doorway, not knowing what to do with it. Should I just put it back where I found it? A kind librarian pointed to the “Returns” sign and then led me to a table with children’s books I might like.

My favorite book was the story of a loner child, which spoke to me. But what was it really about, I wondered so many years later? Some time ago, I found a used copy on the Internet, long out-of-print. The Girl From Nowhere by Hertha von Gebhardt, a translation from German, tells the story of a girl living with an elderly foster couple. Her mother had died; her father worked far away and attempts to contact him had failed. She sat on the curb all summer waiting for her father to come for her. The neighborhood children laughed at her; everyone thought that was a fantasy. Slowly she made some friends but when it was time to go back to school, she refused to attend, to the concern of her foster family. Then one day, her father came walking down the street and, after goodbyes, they left in a taxi. I imagined he would take her with him where he had been working—places, she had described, where people lived in huts and spoke different languages. Was this how I first was inspired to travel to exotic places?

The downtown Newark Public Library, a stately building with historic artwork, across the street from Washington Park, appears in the movie Goodbye Columbus. The original Philip Roth story took place in Weequahic Newark where Roth grew up, as did most of his novels, and was one of a short story compilation. My parents told us that one of the stories in that volume, Epstein, was about a couple who were close friends of theirs, with a similar name; I grew up calling them aunt and uncle.  (Read it; I won’t describe it here.) Many years later, Philip Roth came to the upstate New York university library where my cousin worked and asked the director, her husband, for permission to do some research there. He said yes, but first you have to meet my wife, who was from his old neighborhood. She asked the author about Epstein and he confirmed the rumor. Although the story was fiction, they were the inspiration. He lived next door to the couple as a child, and on hot summer evenings, with windows open, he would listen to them arguing loudly in the kitchen.

In college, my part-time job was at the school library, a few hours several days a week. I filed catalog cards, checked the shelves for the books they described, and shelved volumes left on the tables by students.  I was curious to see what people were reading, what they were studying for their courses. Time went quickly when I worked in the stacks, perusing the titles, discovering new worlds.

After graduation and traveling around the country, I moved to Denver. My Fine Arts degree would not get me a job, since I had rejected the idea of teaching at that time of my life. After suffering through a few boring office jobs to get on my feet, I was hired to an entry level position at the Denver Public Library. I could spend my days among books in an institution I believed in.

The Central library was remodeled after my time there, a glorious mishmash of architectural styles.

Denver Central Library, Colorado

Although most of my work was behind the scenes, my time covering the busy front desk where books were checked out and returned at the Central library was most interesting. The local characters that came and went became familiar faces, a cross-section of the community: the old man who just came in for some human contact and called me Buttercup, homeless shadows that slept in comfy chairs in the atrium with their bags dropped around them, students doing research for school, the symphony maestro I admired, self-absorbed women leafing through volumes for hours in the genealogy department, well-dressed intelligentsia purposefully seeking information or the latest bestsellers. Heartbreaking tragedy swept the staff in the eighties, ravaged by AIDS. The erudite director of rare books passed away, and soon after, his partner, a gentle-hearted coworker of mine, and another man I had worked with, by suicide.

I spent ten years there. In that time, I was promoted to manager of the Circulation department and was at the right place and time to take DPL into the computer age. Somehow, I became the resident computer geek, learning it on the job with minimal training, directing a massive conversion to a digitized catalog, running an old-style computer room with air conditioning, raised floor, and rows of disk drives the size of washing machines. I had a small staff of operators and programmers; our minicomputer was the one brought to life in The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder. I developed policies and procedures, and trained four hundred people to use computers, regularly visiting the then twenty-one branches around the city.

Although I was halfway through a Master’s degree in Library and Information Science at the University of Denver, imagining I could someday run a small branch library, I changed careers. There were too many fascinating opportunities piquing my imagination in the growing digital world. I left the library to start a consulting group with two coworkers, one of whom had become my second husband. Many of our early clients were libraries and schools. Over the next ten years, our business grew as computing changed dramatically—pcs, networking, new programming languages, graphics, web design—and we were constantly learning to keep up, an exciting challenge.

Decades, a few careers, and many travels later, living in the mountains, I have been active in my little Georgetown library, serving on the governing board years ago, and now with the Friends of the Library. My volunteer job is manager of the Book Sale Room, a spacious room in the library basement. With a few other helpers, we organize and sell donated and weeded used books, an enjoyable pastime. So, although I never ran a branch library, I do run a used book store! It’s not open right now, in these days of pandemic, but it will be again.

John Tomay Library, Georgetown, Colorado
Reading room, Georgetown Library
Book Sale Room, Georgetown Library

Of course, I’ve always loved buying books and perusing bookstores, especially the classic, wonderful, many-storied (pun intended) original Tattered Cover in Cherry Creek, Denver, leaving with a small stack of selections I couldn’t resist, and wandering through used bookstores to find a few worn treasures to take home. And I’ve visited some amazing libraries around the world. Here are a few.

School library downstairs, my classroom and computer lab upstairs, Colegio Maya American International School, Guatemala City, Guatemala
Library, Basilica and Convent of San Francisco, Lima, Peru
Book shelves, National Library, Vienna, Austria
Community biblioteca, Santa Cruz, Guatemala
Library sign sculpture, Melbourne, Australia
Inside the library, Melbourne, Australia
My library wall

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Published by rkrontheroad

Writer, photographer, traveler

58 thoughts on “Libraries in my life

  1. I would love to share this with DPL Ruth! I remember well those years when you first introduced us to computers. You spoke in a language then that was so foreign and yet look at us now. Thanks for the memories.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. dear Ruth, I also have great memories from libraries 🙂 every time I travel I try to visit some 🙂 and after your post, cant wait to discover Melbourne’s library eheh stay safe and greetinfs from Portugal, PedroL

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I too love libraries. My favorite is the Los Angeles Library in Down town Los Angeles. Not only were there books but such history and the artictechure. My kids and I spent many Saturdays there. The best free fun.

    Your photos are gorgeous 🙂

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  4. I, too, love libraries! During 3 years of summer break from University, I went back to North Kansas City to work at my local library there. I grew up walking and biking to that library all through grade school and high school, so it was fun to be back ‘home’! I had two main jobs there, the Children’s Library, including Story Time on Saturday mornings, and auditing all the books on the entire library shelves in order to match the card catalogues. That included the “Morgue” in the basement where all the “Dead” library books went to rest!!! It was very special to know that I touched and recorded every book in the library, and came to find books that I would never have looked for before that process. My favorite historical library is the Melk Abbey Library in Austria on the Danube River which I have visited twice.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Janet, thanks for sharing your experience! How strange that they called the basement the Morgue. Denver Public Library, when I worked there, at least, had multiple basements full of packed-in stacks. Runners would get requests from vacuum tubes and send them up by dumbwaiters called lifts. Once there was a tornado warning and library users had to come down to the “lowers” until the danger passed. They were fascinated to be down there among all those hidden books!

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  5. I loved reading about your libraries and seeing the photos. Some are just gorgeous! The library has always been one of my favorite places to go since I was a kid and got my first card. Then later on I worked in the school’s libraries. Everywhere we ever moved I’ve found the library first of all. 🙂

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      1. Same here about finding libraries. Sometimes even the small town ones are really good, too.
        Oh! Yes… my blog name is for the Time Machine – love that book and movie. And we had a cat named Weena, too. We believed she could teleport herself – haha – because sometimes we couldn’t find her, and then she’d reappear. 🙂

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  6. Great collection of pics, sadly that Melbourne sculpture might be predictive of our libraries future as ebooks take over 😦 How blessed to have worked and volunteered in them!

    Libraries, and books, were my escape my sanctuary so I desperately wanted to be a librarian. I was accepted into the Library of NSW, near Botanic Gardens, the year they decided they would not give female staff scholarships … because they got pregnant and left. I moved quickly to the bank and my colleagues took 12-16 years to complete their studies …

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    1. Oh no, I hope that’s not the future of libraries! Your comment makes me think of the ending of Planet of the Apes, when our Statue of Liberty is uncovered as a piece of dead history… How terrible that scholarships were not open to women. One of the people I hired for the Denver Public LIbrary computer room, someone who actually had large computer experience we needed, was 6 months pregnant. It was quite an ordeal talking the human resources department into letting me bring her on! She was the best.

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      1. I’m sure they bar women more subtly these days … newer laws stop them being so blatant! As if pregnancy, or even the possibility thereof, renders a woman brainless … please!

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  7. What a fascinating post chock-full of wonderful library goodies. I do believe my love of reading also began from my tiny hometown library in southern New Jersey. After grad school I actually worked in Newark New Jersey but I never got to the library there. You make me wish I had. While I was getting my masters in English literature I realized what I should’ve been getting was a masters in library science. I so enjoyed reading your career path here. And wonderful library photos!

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    1. Thanks so much, Pamela! And thanks for sharing a view into your own life. I was an art major in college which was pretty useless career-wise but creatively satisfying. An elective class I took my last semester was Cultural Anthropology and was fascinating. In view of my travel interest, I probably should have pursued that! But I’m happy I ended up in libraries for a good part of my adult work life.

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  8. When I saw this post, I smiled. You took me right back to my “first” library — a small, quiet place in the little town where I grew up. Of course, we had a fairly good “library” at home, too. My grandfather was an avid reader. He taught me to read long before I headed off to kindergarten. Later he taught me how to go through the “contents” pages and how to use an “index” in a book. There have been many lbraries in my life. Whenever I’ve moved to a new town, my first question has always been “Where is the library?” We have a great one here, with lots of activities and programs for children and adults. I also love that our town has set up a few “impromptu” libraries at various locations. People donate books — these are in sheltered bookcases outside — and if you find a book you want, you take it. It’s more an “exchange” than an actual library, but anything that encourages reading is an important addition to a community.

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  9. Thanks for sharing your library story, Judith! I too was an early reader and always have a pile of books that I’m in the middle of reading. Little free libraries are very popular these days. Even in my mountain county we have them spread around. There’s one a block away from my brother’s house in Toronto as well!

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  10. I could spend hours in any library, given the time and space. Riding home, balancing books on my bicycle handlebars, and bursting with optimism for the new stories I’d find in those new pages – those are some of my favorite memories. I love seeing the photographs of libraries in other countries. Thank you for sharing!

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  11. Great to learn more about the Denver and Georgetown libraries (we live in Colorado Springs). “Harold and the Purple Crayon” will always be one of my favorite children’s books (which is remarkable considering there are no words). Like you a lot of my childhood downtime was in libraries, so I appreciate them for the inviting places they are. Finally, I’m always encouraged when a friend tells me he/she still looks to the library for a copy of a recent novel or video, even though either can easily be purchased or downloaded. There’s something rather frugal and quaint about still taking the “borrow” approach in this day and age.

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    1. Thanks for reading, Dave! I still like the feel of a physical book, although I listen to audio books and download movies. I hope that never goes away. Nice to hear from a fellow Coloradan.

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  12. Love this post because it lets me see how much you love libraries. You’ve worked in some pretty spaces, and I know you have fond memories of what you did for others. I’m active in the Friends of Knox County Public Library in Knoxville, Tennessee, my home town. And I can’t do enough for the wonderful people who answer thousands of questions daily and steer people in the right direction for good reading.
    Thanks for following our blog, Oh, the Places We See. We may be able to travel more in the near future — or at least I sincerely hope so!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much for reading and for sharing your library connection in your own town. Libraries are wonderful public institutions! I’ve had these stories in my head for a long time. Happy to have found your web site and looking forward to more posts. Here’s to future travels!

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  13. That was such a revealing post, Ruth. I was like you, a loner and reader. I read our local library in Glasgow dry. First the children’s section – Nancy Drew was a favorite because my mum was a private detective. Then I graduated to the adult section. I considered becoming a librarian and often wish that I had but life drew me in a different direction. In the north of Scotland, I worked at a community facility helping newbies with the INTERNET! Then in Egypt, I worked at another community center where we had a small library and Arabic classes.

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  14. I can smell the books in mind and, in spite of the fact that I have always been a slow reader, I have always loved being surrounded by books and knowing they exist. As I have gotten older I now realize that it is the love of stories and my own inclination as a storyteller that has, like you, always drawn me into libraries.

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  15. Great to ‘meet’ a fellow librarian in this online world 🙂 I too have special memories of childhood library visits and favourite books. A small bit of excitement in our suburb when I was about eight or nine was the opening of a brand new library. My sister and I were there with my mother on the first day and were photographed for the local paper 🙂 I do wish I had that cutting!

    Later I had a Saturday job in another local library and went on to study librarianship (with English Literature) at university in Wales. I returned to my home town to work in its libraries and for many years was a children’s librarian before working my way up to a management position. I then went to another authority in central London to manage its children’s and adult learning services, eventually becoming a strategic lead for partnerships, funding and more. From there I moved to a role in central government, managing an exciting national public libraries development programme for five years. But government priorities changed, the work became less well-supported and it was time to move on. I set myself up as a freelance consultant, working mainly through a start-up consultancy advising local and national government on the full gamut of policy areas. I led the development of their libraries offer for about ten years, running projects up and down the country and very occasionally abroad (we helped Abu Dhabi create its first real strategy for public library development!) I’m now retired but of course still have a number of friends working in that field. I love to visit innovative libraries when we travel, if I can drag my husband into them! A recent favourite, of course, was Seattle 🙂

    Sorry for the long comment but it’s fun to exchange shared or similar experiences 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much for sharing your own journey! We are indeed kindred souls! Please, no apologies, I’m thrilled to have a detailed comment and get to know you. How exciting to have created a plan for libraries in other lands!

      Liked by 1 person

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