Posted by: Donna Cunningham | July 20, 2009

The Best Thing God Ever Made—the Public Library

libraryonawa2b©2009 by Donna Cunningham, MSW

 I scarcely remember what I had for supper last night, but I vividly recall the sweltering summer day in 1950 when I got my first library card.  

 My big cousin, Nancy Hedges took me and her littlest sister, Ethel Mary, to the Onawa public library.  The main room, with its high ceilings and beautiful woodwork, smelled sweetly of masses of well-used volumes. Already an avid reader at 8, I was thrilled that I got to pick my own books from what seemed like an endless supply.  For the remaining two years we lived in my home town, I walked over there a couple times a week and left with an armload of Nancy Drew mysteries and orange-covered biographies. I still sometimes dream of that distinctive building with its Spanish-tiled roof, and, from that day to this, remain convinced that the public library is the best thing God ever made.

In high school, I spent my study hall periods volunteering in the library. I alternated between checking out books for my classmates and checking out the librarian/French teacher Mr. Orthner. My friends and I all had a crush on him—surely the most sophisticated man in Newton, Iowa.  The high point of our young lives was surely the time Mr. O., as we called him, brought our advanced French class petit fours from Paris.  Mais oui! When school was closed in summer, I biked to the public library a couple times a week for my mystery fix, since they limited me to seven books each trip.

I went to college in the nearby town of Grinnell and supplemented my scholarship by working 20 hours a week at the college library. I considered my job in the acquisitions department a real plum—I got to see the newest books before anyone else. One part of the process was paging through the more scholarly tomes to make sure none of pages needed cutting. I often got lost in the words and had to be prodded back to work. When we took aptitude tests, my highest score was librarian.  (They didn’t have a scale for astrologer, I’m guessing.)

Through the years, I remained a devoted fan of libraries.  I spent a full year researching my second book, Being a Lunar Type in a Solar World, in the voluminous collection of the Brooklyn public library’s main branch.  I spent days in sections devoted to psychology, sociology, health, science, and biography, looking at  studies the scientific minds had done. They’d uncovered connections between the various Moon-related areas of life:  emotions, food, mothers, the female physiology, home, habits and even the moon itself. Serendipity has always been the law of my life, and so I often discovered gems I didn’t know I needed casually tossed on book carts, waiting to be shelved. At midday, I’d break upstairs in their lunchroom, digesting their cafeteria food and the morning’s work while gazing out at Prospect Park and the skylines of downtown Brooklyn and lower Manhattan. libraryportlandcentral

When I moved to Portland, OR in the mid-90s, I was quite lonely.  I knew a few colleagues before the move, but after helping the new astrologer in town get settled, they turned out to be the lunch now and then sort.  My solution was to volunteer downtown at the Central Library branch, as much as two or three times a week for three years. I loved my job and felt quite like a society lady, lunching afterwards in any one of the various ethnic cafes around it.  

The place is a warren of three public floors, several floors of book vaults underground, a Starbuck’s and a lunchroom. Besides the books, we enjoy a full slate of free activities that include lectures and workshops, book events by local writers, and performances of one kind and another.  It’s a beautiful building, on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.  

Portland is a city of book lovers, and when this branch was renovated in the late 1990s, the way the books got moved to storage was that people checked out books and took them to their local branch. Then when Central was finished three years later, they checked the books out from the local branch and returned them to Central. 

librarytitlewaveWhat triggered this rush of memories was that my pal Martha and I went on Saturday to The Title Wave Used Bookstore, a former library that is now the outlet for books removed from collections of over a dozen city branches. Martha had been given a $50 gift certificate, and she generously gave me $15 worth.  What does $15 buy in these days of $8.99 paperbacks?  Well, with used paperbacks at $.75 and hard covers at $2, I wound up with close to 20 mysteries and novels! Happy summer, folks.

Why I started recalling my first library love, back in Onawa, Iowa, was that this building was the same vintage and type—a Carnegie classic, built in1912, with high ceilings, lovely woodwork, that same sweet scent of old books, and even the same red Spanish tiled roof. Martha’s a lot slower shopper than I am, so I quickly scribbled down memories and the first draft of this post while I waited. Writing students, that’s how to capture those telling details—get them down as fast as possible while the impressions are fresh.   Never leave home without a notebook! For more writing tips, peruse the posts under the category The Skywriter’s Apprentice—tips from my writing seminars.

I was deliberating overnight about what planet rules libraries.  I kept wanting to say Jupiter, but I suspect only University libraries are Jupiter-ruled.  Regular libraries have to be Mercury.   They are, first and formost, information distributors, full of ephemereal materials like magazines, newspapers, tapes, and videos, as well as books.  They’d have to be third house places, answering our homework questions and catering to our curiousities.   What say you?

GIVING BACK:  While we are blessed with one of the best public library systems in the world,  thanks to Andrew Carnegie, let’s remember that there are whole villages in Africa and Asia that have no books at all, much less a library as full of riches as the ones I’ve been describing here. Even in today’s economy, it wouldn’t cost much to give back. For $.50 apiece, you can Donate Books to Africa. The highly regarded  Books For Africa was founded in 1988 as a nonprofit (501.c.3) organization by Tom Warth, whose dream was to ship donated books to the children of Africa. Tom’s visit to a Ugandan library, where books were almost nonexistent, inspired him to create a system for collecting discarded books from American schools, libraries, and publishers to send to Africa.  Their web page says,

 “Books For Africa is a simple name for an organization with a simple mission. We collect, sort, ship, and distribute books to children in Africa. Our goal: to end the book famine in Africa. We are the world’s largest shipper of donated books to the African continent. Since 1988, Books For Africa has shipped over 20 million high-quality text and library books to 45 African countries. Millions more are needed.”

For $20 you could send 40 books to African children who have none.  It takes a world to raise a village.  If you have it in your heart to do this, do it now, before this quiet moment passes and the distractions of the world once more wash over you.  I am going to do it myself, right now. 

Art Credits:  Library pix come from the websites of these libraries, plus the official Onawa, IA home page.


  1. Before I knew you, Donna, I was in Portland, OR and just happened by the public library there right after its major renovation. We just HAD to stop in it was so gorgeous from the outside. It totally captivated us! I always recommend people visit it when they’re in Portland. They think I’m nuts, but that’s probably not the only reason. 😉

    Our amazing public library here in Concord is a complete gem. The building itself is magnificent — a real treat to visit. The art, the architecture, the amazing, university-quality special collections never cease to uplift and astonish. We’ll have Bill Staines in a free concert on the lawn of the library later this week. How good is that??

    However, I do take exception to this post’s title: I think perhaps God provided the inspiration, but humans made public libraries — it was one of our finest hours, I suspect.

  2. My local library reopened a couple of months ago, having morphed into a geothermal (and much debated) leviathan on a strip mall.

    it is a sanctuary- as beautiful and new as Grand Central Station must have been when it first opened (but much quieter).

    And when I picked up some books on hold and found they were .50 cents each for the service (and yes, overdue penalties have been raised) I realized that although “I’m not in Kansas” anymore, I am grateful to have access to such a library. (actually, Kansas probably has some library morphing going on as well)

    And since tax dollars alone don’t support it, I accept the additional fees to pay for the geothermal and the future of children finding the wonder of books (DVDs, audiobooks, CDs, etc…)

    This is the newest version of many libraries I’ve gotten lost in and although the technology has changed, the reverence of most of the attendees is the same.

    • Yes, the library does morph! When I was doing that research on Being a Lunar Type in a Solar World, the library didn’t even have computers.
      I must say I am relieved to see some other library lovers’ comments on this post. I almost didn’t put it up because a) I was outing myself as a nerd, and b) I was afraid it would bore everyone to tears. Writing without an editor is nerve racking! Donna

  3. I just lubs my libraries. Have lived in so many places over the years and have a modest collection of library cards that tracks my peripatetic life. Last book I read, which was so sweet, was “Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched The World”.

    The second-best thing God ever made, although it’s a close second, are Thrift Shops.

    • LOL!! That’s quite a dilemma for me, a thrift shop/garage sale goddess. Maybe libraries and second hand venues are tied for the best thing God ever made. Donna

  4. You’ve heard that perennial question, “What’s the one thing you could never live without?” For me, it’s my library card. I have fond memories of a musty-smelling, broken-down little house in a burgeoning suburb with a floor warped on a steep angle. It had that awful 1950s dark brown linoleum. It may have been ugly to the eye, but it was beautiful to my heart. I was a voracious reader, hungry to learn. I went on an Internet expedition last year to find out my childhood library’s history. Of course, it morphed into something much more beautiful, but nothing could be more breathtaking than the love of learning, reading, and mental exploration the original instilled in me.

  5. My first love was always the library. My mother was not able to afford sitter back in the dark ages and the library was my sitter after school. I ready every book section by section that I was allowed to read. I soon progressed into the adult section and each book had to be approved first by my mother…what a bore. Later on after multiple moves I again sought jout the library to researdh anything and everything about Solar energy, How to build your own cabin, Ponds, water systems etc. It never fails to fill me with the information I need. When ever someone asks me How to do something…my response is fCheck the library out. And now we have aFrinds of the Library group that sells used books and my personal library continues to grow. Thanks Donna for the sharing of your love of Libraries. The smell of books is ingrained in me as well. I remember downstairs in the Newton Libray the smell of the really old books. I was able to assist the librarian with cutting book marks and checking jout the really really old books that no one else got to see. It was a real adventure.

    • Delores and I visited the Newton Public Library together, along with our mutual friend, Donna Jo. Good memories! Donna

  6. I want to be a librarian when I grow up…. er, retire.

    The happiest place I’d rather be, other than my bed, is the library. My bed first, only when I am dreaming.

    I never knew Mercury be so quiet, here in the Library. Must have been overdosed.

  7. Thank you for this post, Donna:

    It’s so nice to meet kindred spirits who share the same dream.

    I could actually live inside a library, safe and protected in the realm of mercurial energy. The Librarium, a Museum of Worlds.

  8. Oh, Donna, you are writing about my life as well. Actually, my first big memory of the library was when I was 6 or 7 and got bitten by two wasps on my way home. Talk about being bit with the library bug. I have books all over my house, books in my car, books everywhere. And libraries are a safe haven for me filled with all my book friends. I volunteer at my own library as a way to give back for all the library has given me. The web is a pretty good substitute but until there is some kind of musty, dusty smell that I can get online when reading an article, it will never be the same.
    Take care out there and many thanks,

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