ORIGIN early 17th cent.: via French from Italian gazzetta, originally gazeta de la novità (because the news-sheet sold for a gazeta, a Venetian coin of small value)

Monday, August 25, 2014

Better Late Than Never

In the last ten years, I've heard myself say: "If I had to do it all over again, I'd be a librarian." What could be more exciting than to work in that sacred space that holds forth, to anyone who wants to explore them, worlds of knowledge and possibility. As a long-time English teacher to elementary school children, and more recently a French-to-English translator and published children's author, I have a natural affinity to the world of words and books, but I've come to this love of librairies too late. Wondering recently, what with my sheer joy at just being in a library and spending hours pulling books off the shelf and wishing I had time to read them all and through them discover the world, why I did not pursue the idea of being a librarian earlier in my life, I've remembered moments and places that could have steered me in that direction but were somehow lost in the flow of life.

Gov. Jimmie Davis inspecting BookMobile, 1962
Used with permission, State Library of Louisiana

I loved these mysteries!
My first memory of loving a library was the "BookMobile" that parked close to my childhood home on Donna Drive in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. At the Broadmoor Shopping Center parking lot, right next to Andrews' Rexall Drugstore, my brother and sisters and I, along with a gaggle of kids from the neighborhood, would line up, impatient to enter the itinerant bus laden with treasures where space inside was limited. We would file in the back door of the long bus, browse the narrow aisle lined with two packed shelves for a few short minutes, choose our books, scoot up to the front of the bus, and quickly check out our treasures. Then, of course, I'd hurry home to read and re-read… and wait for the BookMobile's return the following week. Little Women. Trixie Belden. Nancy Drew. Eight Cousins. Five Little Peppers and How They Grew. These are a few of the titles that come to mind. Thinking of the BookMobile brings back blissful memories.

Surprisingly, I have no memory of a library in my elementary school or junior high school, although I feel sure there must have been one in each establishment. Even during that one year as a sophomore at Broadmoor High School, I cannot remember a school library. Strange.

Kendall Branch Library, Memorial Drive
It wasn't until my family moved to Houston in the summer of 1970 that I have my next memory of feeling completely at home and happy in a library. Moving to a new town and high school when one is fifteen years old was at times a distressing experience, and the quiet yet vibrant world of the the Kendall Branch of the Houston Public Library on Memorial Drive must have soothed my soul and promised that answers to all those questions and dilemmas I was facing were surely to be found somewhere in these volumes. Come to think of it, that's when I began to read biographies: I wanted to see how other people faced and overcame their specific challenges. This library seemed huge and I loved browsing through its aisles, then settling into a desk while waiting my mother to finish her errands before picking me up. The official list of "Books to Read Before College" at the front counter caught my eye; this small piece of paper introduced me to a list of wonderful classics and intrigued me, and I started on a quest of reading them all (still working on that).

Troy H. Middleton Library, LSU, Baton Rouge
After two years in Houston, I returned to Baton Rouge for four years as a college student at LSU. During that long period, I frequently used the LSU library, but it was mainly for studying for exams, or writing term papers. Getting anything done in my dorm room was almost impossible, and the library offered a haven where I could find silence and think. On the other hand, there was little time just to enjoy the library, or to browse in the aisles in search of the unexpected: those professors kept us busy with a great deal of required reading!

Bibliothèque municipale, Couvent des Ursulines, Lannion
Regarding the decades-long period since my college years, I have been lucky. The beautiful and well-stocked library in Lannion (housed in the 17th century Ursuline Convent) kept me happy for eighteen years. After those years in France, the District of Columbia Public Library system has provided me with hours and hours of pleasure and learning these last nineteen years. DCPL is fabulous, vibrant, modern, and a true public service to the residents of DC. My neighborhood library is the Mount Pleasant Branch on Lamont Street. Recently renovated, it is a heavenly place to spend time. The children's section is a very special spot, with murals, painted in the 1930s by Aurelius Battaglia, depicting a fantastical world where the animals take over the circus.
DC Public Library, Mt. Pleasant Branch, Lamont Street
Since children's literature and books for young readers have become more important to me due to my teaching and writing, the library is playing an even larger part in my life. If there is one thing I want to impart to my students and to my readers, it's a love of reading at a very young age. My somewhat late-bloomer passion of reading and libraries lay dormant for too long, and those lost years can never be recouped. The six-, seven-, eight-, and nine-year old students I teach (and from whom I learn tremendous lessons) are philosophers: they ask the hard questions and they tell the truth. And so, I tell the truth right back to them: "If you want to be happy in life, you must love your library, love your librarian, be a reader, and a very curious one at that. The earlier the better."

Next up: The Little Libraries That Could… a few thoughts, notes, and pictures about small libraries (and their wonderful librarians) I visited in Maine and how they persevere in the face of tremendous odds.