A Love Story About Libraries

A Love Story About Libraries

My first love, the Walker Branch Library, Chicago

I was small when I first climbed the steep steps to the Walker Branch Library on the south side of Chicago. I can still hear the creak of the wooden floors as we entered and turned right into the Children’s Library. My mother guided me to the corner shelves, and there my relationship with books took root–they were numerous, colorful, their paper and bindings tactilely pleasing. They held magic and they held me. I fell in love.

I can still remember the eager tingling of my fingers as I pulled books about Cinderella, Snow White, English and Spanish queens, and numerous fairy tales from the shelves and clutched them to my chest. I could take these home. Yes, we had books at home, but not these particular books whose spines I memorized so that I could easily find them again on a future trip. For as a child it wasn’t always about finding something new, but finding again something cherished and loved. (Every autumn through my high school years, I went to the library and checked out Jan Struthers MRS. MINIVER. It had a tangerine-colord spine and I was always happy to find it on the shelf waiting for me.) The books, the smells, the quiet. My love story began.

A Love Story About Libraries

The Chicago Public Library at Washington and Michigan.

In high school I discovered research and the card catalogue. Given a difficult assignment by my sophomore biology teacher, I took the train downtown to the Chicago Public Library at Washington and Michigan. With a little help from a research librarian (love those people) I found articles on ATP, DNA, RNA and mitochondrion. It was the age of Watson and Crick; the infinitesimal workings of our bodies was the hottest info out there. I got an A on the paper and marveled that I was able to find within that huge library the exact information that I needed. A mini-miracle that was.

A Love Story About Libraries

This elegant old house was the college library and often “my home” for those college years.

But the library that truly became my home sat on a splendid green lawn that sloped to the shore of Lake Michigan. This was Ms. Carrie Wheeler’s dream castle, a house built in 1909 at 6300 Sheridan Road on the north side of Chicago. It was renamed Piper Hall in 1934 and repurposed as a library for Mundelein College. Accessible from my dorm, I spent almost every night of my college life sitting at various desks in the library or searching the stacks which were on the 3rd floor. There I found amazing resources for papers on John Keats or Shakespeare.

A Love Story About Libraries

The first floor reading room in Piper Hall. They should have a plaque there for me!










As a high school English teacher I spent many hours in the library familiarizing my students with the card catalogue and the importance of research papers. As a mother, the library was a short walk, one we took often to find picture books to take home or even to read there; story hour was a treat for my son who wore his pjs and brought a favorite stuffed animal. And later there were medical libraries where I researched articles for Nursing Spectrum/Nurseweek.

Of course the entire process of researching has been revolutionized by the internet. Incredibly, I can sit here and type in Piper Hall and up comes a photo. Card catalogues have gone the way of computers. My friend Joan, a librarian, has one in her home which she now uses to store lots of things!

I still cherish libraries and though I could download a book on a device for the book clubs I belong to, I’d far rather hold the work in my hands and read it–and I get to go to the library.

My love story about libraries is shared by many. At a recent talk David McCullough, renowned author of biographies of John Adams and Harry Truman stated: Books are the furniture of the mind.  Yes and they are also the important furniture of those buildings that house them. Barbara Kingsolver, fiction author of works like The Poisonwood Bible states: I attempted briefly to consecrate myself in the public library, believing every crack in my soul could be chinked with a book.” And Cicero wrote: “If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.”  I would add–it doesn’t have to be a big library, but a shelf of ten books or so that you love, that you want to dip into now and again. And there’s nothing better than having a book on your bedside table–just waiting there for you like a treasure before you sleep. It’s all part of the love story of reading and libraries. Enjoy.

Thanks to Google Images

A Love Story About Libraries

The Kansas City Library.


A Love Story About Libraries

The card catalogue has given way to tables filled with computers.


A Love Story About Libraries

My brother Bill sent me this photo of his library, Altgeld Hall, at the Un of Illinois Champagne Urbana.


A Love Story About Libraries

The Little Free LIbrary in Hudson, Wis. Take a book, return a book. LOVE THIS.

10 thoughts on “A Love Story About Libraries

  1. I have always had a love affair with libraries too. Thanks for the time-traveling. Gorgeous photos, too. I think Boomers are probably the last generation that grew up in libraries. I opened my Boomer Lit novel, Lady of the Lakewood Diner, with two little girls meeting at the Carnegie Library in a small New England town. The girls are from opposite sides of the tracks, but in the library, they’re equals. Another of the great things about the now-fading American library system.

    • Hi Anne,
      Yes! In fact one of the quotes that I didn’t use in the post talks about the democratic aspects of the public library. You can get all the information you need to argue with the government if you choose to. And as your novel shows, libraries are an equalizer–just love of the printed word is all you need. A library card sometimes comes in handy too. Thanks so much for you comment. Beth

  2. I went to Walker branch quite frequently. That is where I learned my respect for reference librarians. And you know I married one, Ed

  3. It was sure fun to see the Walker Branch Library in Chicago and read Beth’s comments about the “creak in the wooden floors”!!!!! I was there all over again, looking at books, and being excited for the experience. I too found my own spot at the University of Illinois’s Altgeld Hall’s library. The steeple held a large clock which chimed the quarter hours, often refreshing one from a quick nap or thundering a warning for the exam that was in fact tomorrow!!!!!
    But the peace and serenity of the library helped me learn to respect the process of education and what a great gift a good book can be.

    • Thanks for your strong feelings about your college library and and the connection you felt to the gift of education. And of course we loved the Walker Branch, which to us was just THE LIBRARY. Sometimes we’d stop and see Nana because she was so close by. But you are right, Mom would check out books for her and she’d say, “Oh well, I already read that one!” Makes me chuckle.

  4. From Joan, reference librarian: I loved your Boomer Highway about libraries (and all of the others, too)! Interestingly, I used to do all my studying in the library at Rosary College, too. I found a nook in the back of the periodical stacks and it was perfectly quiet. I liked the books you searched out as a child! I made a million visits to libraries, I think, with my Mom and Dad and my Grandma. Mainly, I searched out the Nancy Drews though. I’m glad you had such good luck in the reference depts, too, obviously one of my favorite hangouts through the years.

    • I know. Me too. And oddly if someone came to visit me, they just sent them to the library!! Thanks, Tom.

  5. The city has built a new, high-tech library that has won awards – it’s all white, with lots of open spaces. Give me a library, preferably with a lot of architectural detail, with nooks and crannies, filled with books of all sizes, and with that special smell that those types of libraries have. Just like what you’d find in the pictures that you included in this post.

    • I hear you. When we lived in Des Moines they built a similar structure designed by an award-winning architect with a green (grass) roof. But there were no nooks and crannies. There were chairs in groups, but out in the middle of nowhere. And people today often aren’t quiet in libraries either. Everyone who has posted remembers a corner that was theirs, a place they could go to get lost in the word. Thanks, Marianna.

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