System Director’s Report
August 2010

I asked one of my colleagues if it was “too mean” to ask Martha to write a System Director’s report on her second day. We agreed that it was probably too soon, but yet I felt a little strange writing this month’s report as I will have turned the reins over to her long before our September meeting.

So, instead of writing something myself, I decided to take this opportunity to share one of my favorite stories from the “Libraries for Real Life” website (http://www.librariesforreallife.org/).  If you haven’t had a chance to look at the site, I hope this story will inspire you to go read some more stories, or submit one of your own.

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Simple Things: Libraries

Libraries are the best deal in town. Any town. They are magical places that are used by just about everyone because we all know that the answers we seek are somewhere within the walls of the library between the covers of a book. The answer might appear in the form of a sentence or even a word. But it's there. Mothers with young children, fathers with young children, people on breaks from whatever their usual routines happen to be, poor people, rich people, people who have read hundreds of books, people who like to look at pictures, people who live in mansions, people who have the sky for a ceiling, all kinds of people united in a common thirst -- a unified quest for knowledge. It makes sense to be there. It feels good to be in the company of others pursuing a common purpose. For one person the sought-after knowledge might be a phone number. For another, it could be an answer to a question about relationships. For yet another, it could be photos and information about berries growing in their backyard and whether they're poisonous or not. Eye contact is not necessary. Talking is optional or even discouraged. The library is a place where seekers gather. Seekers of knowledge. Seekers of warmth. Seekers of coolness. Seekers in search of the indescribable glue that makes humans human. A sanctuary. A haven.

I remember the first library I ever knew. It was in New York City right across the street from Tompkins Square Park. Tenth Street between Avenues B & A. On the other side of the park from Slugs' Jazz Club -- the little place where trumpeter Lee Morgan was shot to death. The place where I heard a young McCoy Tyner play. On the other side of the park from the little liquor store where I bought my first bottle of cheap wine. Gypsy Rose was the name. Came in a dark green pint bottle. The label was a picture of a dark red alley lined with bricks, I think. How appropriate. The Tompkins Square Library was about one-half block away from the Boys Club on 10th and A. The library represented a club that I could belong to in the days when there were many clubs I was prohibited from joining. The days before the existence of the Civil Rights Act or Fair Housing Act. The days when killing a Black person by lynching was not considered murder because lynching was not considered murder. If I'm lyin' I'm flyin'. Read the history of lynching in the library. I was a library member in the days when the city of New York and the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company formed a joint venture to build Stuyvesant Towne -- glorious high-rise buildings that were beautifully landscaped on New York's Lower East Side. The housing projects I grew up in, just a few short blocks away, were a so-called separate but equal response to Stuyvesant Towne. Black people were not permitted to live in Stuyvesant Towne. We could deliver newspapers, bottles of orange juice and fresh pastry, but we couldn't live there. We could baby-sit, cook, clean and do other domestic things, but we couldn't live there. No pass or card would help us gain admittance.

 

So, the Tompkins Square Library was very special to me. It was an oasis of fairness in the middle of a sea of things that were flat-out wrong. Talking was not allowed in libraries. It didn't matter what color your skin was. Talking was not allowed. Librarians were mostly women back in the day, and in addition to knowing where everything was and answering every possible question, librarians had to be adept at saying "shhhhhhhhh." Males had to take off our hats when we entered the library. This was no big deal because hat removal was required and expected of all males entering any building, public or private. And, getting a library card wasn't that easy. It was not automatic or a foregone conclusion. One of the requirements was that the person applying for a library card had to recite the pledge of allegiance from memory. Upon successful recitation, a library card would be issued and it was a big deal. As far as I could tell, the rules were applied evenly to everyone who used the library. It didn't matter if you were rich or poor or Black or White. What a place. It was fair. Like home base in a nasty game where everyone seemed to be invested in tagging you out. I remember one summer when school was out. I marched determinedly into the library in search of a fat book. My intention was to read the book, from cover to cover, over summer vacation. My only selection criterion was that the book be fat. I remember like it was yesterday. I chose "Of Human Bondage" by W. Somerset Maugham because it was fat. I just knew that something would be noticeably different when I read the last word in the book. I was convinced that I'd be taller and wiser. Or that the human race would collectively and simultaneously realize the ridiculousness of segregation based on race or less obvious ways that humans cordon ourselves off from one another. I did finish that book before going back to school that fall. I wasn't taller. The world hadn't gotten any smarter and as far as I knew, the planets had not reversed their orbits. But I did finish the book.

Many years ago, I lived on Madison's south side. In four different houses. The times were tumultuous, wonderful, scary and pregnant with every conceivable possibility. One thing remained constant during the swirl of events and people and thoughts and truths that were exposed as fallacies only to be replaced by other truths. Two of those truths remain. One is the essentialness of love. The other is the library because it represents our incessant quest for knowledge and to be better tomorrow than we are today which, in turn, means that the world will be better tomorrow than it is today. We hold this truth to be self-evident: We should all support and love libraries. There is a painting by Jacob Lawrence -- a marvelous African American artist -- entitled "The Library." Mr. Lawrence passed away in 2000. Read about his life and art at your local library. Do it today. You'll never be the same. Such is the power, magic and beauty of the library.

-- Kenneth Haynes, Lakeview Branch of Madison Public Library, published in the 1/14/2010 edition of "The Capital City Hues" newspaper (07/10)