My love affair with libraries began in Strongsville, Ohio, the second my barely teenaged self saw Rodney Bryan, a boy in my class, in the stacks at our town library, which at the time occupied an old house on the square.
I can still see him in that moment, looking at a book he had just pulled from the shelf as if he were embarrassed by it, all lit up like an angel by the fluorescent lamps overhead. He was so beautiful.
I’d been a book nerd since way before that, starting with the times my mother got so angry at me for reading under the covers with a flashlight long after the first time she hollered up the stairs. Pretty sure I’m one of the few girls who’s read her Brownie and Junior Girl Scout manuals cover to cover. I still have them, as well as my 1964 edition of "A Christmas Carol" published by Lippincott. I still think about my old copies of "Mary Poppins" and "The Sword in the Stone" and harbor some hope that they are still floating around somewhere in my parents’ house. My ultimate favorite: "Harriet the Spy."
As a schoolgirl, I read fervently. Adored the Bookmobile. Regularly ordered from Scholastic Books. Borrowed copies of "Highlights" from our school library. The smell of their pages is a memory in the deepest cells of my body; I can conjure it up in my mind in a millisecond.
In the late ‘60s, my father got involved with the relocation of our community library from the old house to a brand-new brick building a few blocks away. The way he describes it, the project was low on funds so he volunteered to engineer a concrete sign for the front lawn of the new place. I can still remember the frame he built, the pouring of the concrete, the letters he designed out of wood and how it all took up so much room in the garage my parents couldn’t park their cars in it.
When the new library opened, I was 16 and got my very first job there. Ironically, my title was "page." My primary duties were to wheel out all the returned books to the stacks on wooden carts and re-shelve them, re-shelve the books patrons had left strewn about and go through each and every shelf and make sure the books were all in order by Dewey Decimal number. My favorite parts of the library were the McNaughton stacks, the mystery books.
My boss was the head librarian, Lucile Spieth. She wore the same zip-up-the-back polyester dress every day but in different colors and prints. She was a kind lady who lived so close to the library she could walk to it. I worked there until I took a job at the Holiday Inn.
A few decades and jobs later, I was in a faculty meeting during which a Ph.D. called libraries "bor-ing."
I was taken aback. The library? Boring?
Mind you, this was the late ‘80s, during the advent of message boards and a very healthy distance away from the Internet as we know it. I can’t even tell you anymore what were considered alternatives to libraries back then.
A few weeks after my colleague said this, perhaps in spite, I took my students to the library to research topics for their next presentations. They humored me for about 45 minutes then began sneaking across the street to the Taco Bell.
The library at one of my alma maters, Bowling Green State University, was a beacon – a tower you could see way in the distance from the Ohio Turnpike on a clear day. By the time I started at Cleveland State, the Internet was just beginning to make a splash at the library there. During grad school at Marquette University, I was a research assistant who practically lived at Raynor Memorial Libraries. I recently found out that alumni are allowed in during certain hours of the week; this makes me happy because I would love to just sit in the stacks in Memorial again and read and write. I had a study carrel there that I shared with a theology Ph.D. candidate; our books looked really good together on the shelves inside.
When I went to Marquette, I lived on the East Side and regularly walked to campus – 4.5 miles round trip daily, lugging a backpack full of books. Sometimes I walked down Wisconsin Avenue to get there; sometimes I used Wells.
On Wells, there was a grey building across from the Public Museum with an attractive enough yet fairly nondescript façade compared to other buildings around it. One day walking on Wisconsin Avenue, I discovered that it was the backside of the Central branch of Milwaukee Public Library, which was grand on the front. It reminded me of the apartment buildings on Prospect Avenue that use the nice stone out front and plain brick on the back.
Almost my entire last year of grad school, I kept on walking right past the Central Library.
One day, I finally went in.
I spent afternoons in the humanities and children’s rooms. Discovered the Bookseller, the used bookstore. Got a library card. Put County Cat in my browser’s Favorites Bar. Borrowed the first edition of a John Cheever novel from the basement, where it was stored along with hundreds of other older books. There are so many other features (the green roof) that I haven’t even gotten to yet. My plan is to keep going back until I’ve seen it all and then keep going back. The Central Library is one of my very favorite places in Milwaukee.
We all have these places we continuously pass by and say, "I’d like to stop in there sometime." I am always surprised at the number of Milwaukeeans I talk to who know downtown and are aware of the Central Library but have never been inside.
If you’re one of these folks, all I can say is: next time you’re on Wisconsin Avenue between 8th and 9th, pull over into one of the free 15-minute parking spots in front of Central. As soon as you get through both sets of front doors, the first thing you have to do is look up. The next thing you have to do is look down. (You’ll know what I mean when you get there.) Walk through the next set of doors into the library, past the wreath made of rolled book pages to the staircases. Turn in all directions; take in as much as you can in the few minutes you have. Make mental notes for next time, when you can stay longer.
On your way out, look down the hallway to your left to where you see wooden carts with books and DVDs. This is the Bookseller used bookstore, and your brain needs an imprint of that for next time too.
Then write to me here and let me know what you thought of your brief adventure. If you know where I can find an old card catalog, please let me know that too. I miss them and would love to have one.