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.
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.
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.
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Email me at: Ruth@RuthRosenfeld.com