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First Person: Checking in to the library

As the Carnegie upgrades, it's time to applaud these oases of civilization

Saturday, June 02, 2001

By Melinda Suska Conturo

I woke up one recent morning feeling blue, possibly in the midst of a midlife crisis. Rolls of flab around my belly and gray hairs creeping about my head won't wane. It's in this state that I entered the East Liberty Branch of the Carnegie Library. But I left with a grin and a bag of books.

It's good news that Carnegie Library Director Herb Elish, as reported last month, wants to make libraries more consumer-friendly and to rally round the libraries' coming of age. In spite of my rickety future, one thing is guaranteed. The Carnegie Library is dependable, free and improving with maturity. The news of a library/Barnes & Noble approach has me as excited as a new Barbara Kingsolver book on a laid-back summer day. Libraries are so important.

Frankly, the only place I could stomach during elementary and high school was the library. I can recall my elementary school librarian, as she resembled Miss Trunchbull, the headmistress in Roald Dahl's "Matilda." When you walked into her library (and it was hers), you sat quietly, waited and watched tensely as she ate a package of Lance Peanut Butter Crackers. She was methodical, probably cataloging each crumb and placing a Dewey number on the cardboard.

 
 
Melinda Suska Conturo lives in Highland Park.
   
 

In spite of her coldness, she occasionally read aloud. It was the first time I heard the story of Achille's heel from the Iliad. She didn't explain it. You didn't ask questions. But the story fascinated me. An interest in stories began.

It was the first book in Ludwig Bemelmans' Madeline series, in which this little Parisienne goes to the hospital, that rescued me from the dread of my best friend's appendix surgery. A book named "Tess" offered me a window to see outside surroundings. Tess was a female, African-American character with experiences and routines parallel to mine. We weren't so different after all.

A short time later I invited Anna Marie, an African-American student, to my house. Anna Marie sat on the back of my spider bike, clinging to my waist. We rode through the streets of my closed-minded neighborhood, carefree and innocent of the harshness of racism. With a chisel called books, ignorance was being chipped away and replaced by tolerance.

First it was books of few words, such as art books and photographs of people and places. With the prologue of adolescence, it became tales about growing up with family troubled plots and female protagonists who overcame hardships. My parents were divorcing.

I still keep my eighth-grade library award. How did I receive this award after what I had once done? In the chaos of the class being out of control, while a substitute covered the library, I had joined the crowd and threw library books out the window. Before I even entered the principal's office, I sobbed -- retching, hiccupping sobs.

This behavior was puzzling; as my actions attacked something I appreciated a great deal. I often think of my students, their maturity, and how actions can sometimes just make no sense at such an age. One can never tell who can be saved through books. Libraries with teen areas are a happy idea.

The library was there during my tumultuous days of high school. While students cut class outside, I systematically used the hall pass as a library pass. It was a new library and the safest and quietest place I knew in my life.

Nowadays, in my job as a school librarian, I get pleasure from suggesting books to students. One eighth-grader and I are reading John Christopher. We both agree that the prequel doesn't come close to the writing of the original trilogy. In spite of his polite prodding, I refuse to tell him what happens next. Instead, the next books were thrust hurriedly into his eager hands to read before graduation. Reading doesn't come easy for this teen, but he's hooked.

As the years have passed, I have changed -- but the library stands strong. The curves of each worn marble step evident of those before me. I went to the Oakland Carnegie Library one day when the stress of working and school took its toll during those college years. I captured a work of fiction from the glass shelves, and sat in a torn and tattered chair -- snoozing and reading all day until night.

Those liberating Oakland Branch days passed. Baby One, Two and Three soon arrived. At the East Liberty Branch, Anna Hilliard set up weekly children's movies. She was so patient as my babies grew among the stacks and curiously seized books She waited good-naturedly as I chased One, Two, and Three around "Brown Bear" and in front of "The Little Engine that Could."

Teaching them library behavior etiquette was no easy task. In spite of it all, Anna always seemed pleased to see us. There are others like Anna, ready to reflect the library in a positive consumer-oriented way. I couldn't finish adult novels in the bedlam of these three, so the librarians rustled up a collection of young adult books for me. I read these books sitting next to the bathtub, one hand on a baby, the other on a book.

I will say that I long for the old-fashioned card catalog. I miss flipping through those musty smelling, faithful cards. But the online EIN system is getting better. When I need to request and reserve materials, I can do it from home and visit the library later.

I don't know what it is about reading books and going to the library. Perhaps one of my students says it best when she describes what reading is like for her, "I can almost feel what is happening in the story and that is a good thing."

Mr. Elish, I'm ready to grab a book or two, get comfy in a new chair (perhaps even a recliner), take a sip of cappuccino and treat myself for the day. I may even read Gail Sheehy's "Passages" in this welcoming and comfortable place -- a few paces, at least, from the new teen area.



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