where life's not empty, it's restless.

Libraries Change Lives

UnknownSnapshot: me, sitting cross-legged on a hardwood floor. Surrounded by shelves of books. One open in my hand. I’m so absorbed in it I forget who I am, where I am, what time it is. When the bell rings, I close the book and jump up, limp-hopping because my leg’s dead-wood asleep. I’ve got to get to the checkout desk, fast, so I can take this precious book with me as I racewalk to my next class.

It’s 1969. I am 12 years old. The corner of the Nathan Eckstein Junior High School library where I hang out is the corner where the biographies and autobiographies are shelved. And the memoirs, although I don’t remember knowing or using that word then.

The biography section runs on low shelves along the short, east wall to the corner of the long, curved north wall, with its sweeping bank of glass-block windows that work hard all day to capture, refract, diffuse whatever north Seattle light they can find. If you planned to spend some time there, as I usually did, sitting cross-legged on the floor with your skirt fanned from knee to knee was more modest and more comfortable than squatting. Sitting on the floor also dropped me right out of sight behind the interior forest of taller bookcases. For as long as I sat there, I was alone. I was free. No older girls, no cool girls. No cute boys, no scary boys. Just me and real stories of real people, most of whom lived long before junior high school existed. Before glasses, braces and a bad case of adolescent shyness could turn this place called Eckstein into a fortress full of hidden dangers that had to be navigated every single day.

My library corner was my refuge.

Many of the biographies I found and read in that corner have faded from memory. There were the nurses—Clara Barton and Florence Nightingale—and the writers: Louisa May Alcott, Charlotte Bronte. There was Juliette Gordon Low, founder the Girl Scouts. Marie Curie. Helen Keller. Anne Frank. It wasn’t that I wasn’t curious about men. It’s just that during those junior high years, I needed stories of strong women the way lungs need oxygen.

One day, I pulled a memoir off the shelf called All But My Life by Gerda Weissmann Klein. Her story begins on September 3, 1939, a date she remembers with far more clarity than I can recall my Eckstein library corner. It was the day the Nazis invaded her Polish town. She remembers her brother, stepping outside to let the cat in. When he closed the door, he had a bullet hole in his trousers.

When I got home after school, I sat down on the floor of my bedroom and kept reading Gerda’s story: page after page of forced marches, cattle cars, work camps, death camps, and, against all odds, survival. This was not Anne Frank’s diary of hiding from the horror. This was the horror. Gerda Weissmann Klein taught me real history, stripped of all euphemism. She taught me the power of one person’s story. And she put the traumas of my little life—the glasses, the braces, the mean girls, my parents’ divorce—in perspective. Real history, stripped of euphemism, will do that.

This week is the American Library Association’s annual national library week, and this year’s theme is “Lives change @ your library.” My life changed every time I sat down in that secret, sunny corner. What about yours?





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3 thoughts on “Libraries Change Lives

  1. I read this book for a college course and was blown away by her story.

    • Pat Duggan on said:

      Ann, your essay transported me back to my own grade school library where I became transfixed by the old “silhouette series” biographies with their well-worn blue cloth covers and cameo illustrations.

      Having quickly devoured the precious few stories about famous women, I pulled out a volume about Lou Gehrig, only to have it snatched from my hand by a male classmate who put it back on the shelf and curtly informed me that girls weren’t allowed to read “boy” books. The librarian,who witnessed this exchange, merely averted her eyes and said nothing. That didn’t stop me, however. I simply waited for the indignant classmate to leave, retrieved the book, took one more for good measure, checked both out and then marched back to my class where I triumphantly placed both contraband books on my desk in full view of my tormentor. He said nothing and never mentioned it again, so I proceeded with even more resolve to work my way through the entire biographical section of the library.

      What impressed me about those books, even at a young age, was that all of the protagonists faced and conquered early adversity.That lesson would serve me well in high school when an English teacher scoffed at my notions of becoming a writer.
      Naive student that I was, I simply shrugged and pointed out that even Edna St. Vincent Millay had trouble with her teachers.

      The nun was aghast. “Are you daring to compare yourself with the great St. Vincent Millay?”
      “No,” I replied calmly. “I’m only suggesting that you could be wrong about me.”
      And she was.

      You know, I hadn’t really considered this before reading your post, but it suddenly occurs to me now that I what I get to do for a living is write mini-biographies of ordinary people, whose lives are no less inspiring than the heroic figures I’ve encountered in books. Thanks for triggering the epiphany…and for giving me a good laugh about my recalcitrant past!

      • Pat, thank you for this wonderful trip down YOUR library-memory lane! Yes, you do get to write mini-biographies of inspiring ordinary people (in your work as an award-winning broadcast journalist), and by doing so you spread their inspiration further.

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