One of my very first memories is of a library.
Does one expect that kind of statement from a library
student? Well, in my case it is true. My mother
used to take me and my four siblings to our local Chicago Public
Library branch. Except in our neighborhood, this
was no ordinary branch.
My local branch was in the Chicago neighborhood of Austin,
which neighbors on Oak Park, IL. The Austin branch is in the
old Austin Town Hall building, built in 1929. It is a huge,
beautiful building. I could not have been more than 3.
To a 3 year old everything seems big, but this really was.
I was in awe. I can remember the smell of the books, how
incredibly high the ceilings were, the people
sitting at tables reading. I also remember my favorite book
from that library - Curious George. Those library
days with my mother were exciting. I wish I could
think of a way to describe it that would capture how
special it was. "Exciting" seems like such a cliche,
but that is what it was.
The North Austin branch was, sadly, not nearly as
impressive a building, but nonetheless, it was still
a treat to go there. What would we find there? Would
there be any new books? It was a one room storefront
on North Avenue. One corner was devoted to
children's books. I remember taking out the same books again
and again, books about dogs (I loved dogs) Nancy Drew,
and one book in particular that showed you how to bake
Sometimes, just to see how the other half lived, we
visited the "modern" Oak Park Library. Even in those
days (the 1970s) that was one cool library. Oak Park
has a new library today that is even more amazing.
They even had a section of the library where you
could listen to albums! Yes, LPs - vinyl. (with giant
1970s headphones, of course)
Of course, we could not check out books from the Oak
Park Library as we were Chicago residents. One of
many (attempted) snubs we West Siders endured from
the Oak Parkers.
At our local parochial school the "library" was a
converted classroom, and again, I checked out the
same books again and again. When you checked out a book
from the school library you wrote your name of a
sheet a paper that was taped to the inside cover of the
book. So not only could you see who read the book
before you, you could also see how many times you
had checked out the book yourself.
Before the Chicago Cultural Center was the cultural
center it was the main branch of the Chicago Public
Library. This was during my college years. I
would go there to people watch more than anything else.
I would take the newspapers that were attached to the
long wooden poles and sit at a table and "read" the
people who came and went. Essentially it was me,
many elderly people and many more homeless people.
My father worked for many years at the Cook County
Law Library. I used to go there to "study" which really
meant staring out the window (it is on the 29th
floor of the Daley Center) and nap, just like many of the
lawyers there, only I was not billing anyone $150
So, what makes a library? Is it the building, the books, the information, the employees, the visitors,the memories?
Will this next generation, raised in the Internet
age think of libraries as quaint old institutions,
or as a waste of taxpayers money? I have a lifetime
of memories of libraries, good and bad (my purse was
stolen as I napped in the Cook County Law Library)
I still get the same feeling when I enter a library
that I did when I was 3. Awe. Sometimes it is awe
of the physcial structure (like the Oak Park Library or
the Harold Washington Library). Mostly it is awe of
all the stories sitting on the shelves waiting to be
told, or all the information waiting to be shared
One day last fall, my mother took my nieces and nephew
her grandchildren) to their local Chicago Public Library branch.
She recognized the employee at the front desk and he recognized
her. He had worked at the North Austin branch 30 years earlier.
"A kid in a candy shop" - that expression is often
used to describe a state of happiness. Thanks to my
Check out the fabulous Oak Park Library