Carnegie, Parents, and the Joy of Libraries



When my parents first married, they were too poor to go out much. So when the local comic book shops put the older inventory on sale they’d buy a stack, then sit around on weekends reading.

That story says a lot about how I came to be the person I am. It also shows that, to my family, what you read isn’t as important as reading itself.

On a very much related note, the Noble County Public Library, my literary alma mater, is celebrating its 100th year of feeding book-hungry kids like me.

A lot of things happened one century ago, in 1914:

The first red/green traffic light was installed in Cleveland, and immediately vanished into a pothole.

Edgar Rice Burroughs first published Tarzan of the Apes, a book about a violent, brooding bad guy who didn’t like reading and always got the girl. Some things never change.

The last known passenger pigeon died, allegedly eaten by Tarzan.

Oh, and a little war broke out in Europe.

Of all those things, the library opening had the most effect on me, and through that I read about all that other stuff. My family made sure there were books around the house, which is, next to paying them, one of the best ways to get your kids interested in reading. But my folks were poor, and you can buy only so many books before you have to eat them, or burn them for heat. Or eat them, and burn the, uh, waste material for heat. The problem with that is that you’re left without a book, which also isn’t very nutritious.

So along came the library. Here in Albion it was originally housed above a law office, which unfortunately gave all the books a faint odor, but in 1918 a Carnegie library was built along the courthouse square. Carnegie libraries sprung up around the world – 2,509 of them, thanks to money donated by a guy named … well, you know. The last Carnegie grant was made in 1919, so we made it in time.

Carnegie believed in giving to—here, I’ll let him say it: “The industrious and ambitious; not those who need everything done for them, but those who, being most anxious and able to help themselves, deserve and will be benefited by help from others”. Amen, brother. Like me, he came from a poor family, and understood the value of all that stuff he just said.

When I was a little kid in elementary school, every once in a while this big, strange looking van would pull up, and we’d all be herded outside. These days that’ll get the police called on you. Back then … it was full of books. Books I’d never read before, calling my name! “Read me, Mark … I have astronauts. Or dinosaurs, or soldiers … I’m not sure, I’m a book—I can’t read myself.”

To this day I feel sorry for anything or anyone who can’t read.

It was the best part of school, even better than chocolate milk Friday. Then I moved into Albion, and discovered to my astonishment that there was an entire building full of books, not five blocks from my home. All you needed was a card, and some good shoes for the walk.

It was a freaking Carnegie-fueled miracle.

I didn’t know the place had been standing there for decades. But now I could check out a whole handful of books, then go back a week later and check out another handful.

No, I wasn’t popular at school and had no girlfriends … how did you guess?

I cleaned out the children’s section. Then I cleaned out the science fiction section. Then I cleaned out the history section, and began picking away at biographies, science, and other fiction. All before graduation.

It was Heaven.

Around 1990 or so, a library board member took me on a tour of the building’s innards. By then I’d figured out it took a whole passel of people to run and improve a library, not just one moldy guy named Carnegie. The building had been added onto, and you could tell the back part was older than the front. The back part, I learned, was really designed to have books only along its outer walls, but the library had filled up and had shelves across the whole floor in that area.

He took me to the basement, and showed me where the heavy concrete was beginning to crack.

Not without controversy, in 1995 a new library was built here in Albion. I love the open style, and modern feel, and not having to thumb through card catalogues. I especially love that the floor isn’t about to cave in. (The old library is still there, but without the tremendous weight of tens of thousands of books.) The three libraries in Noble County’s system are heading toward 100,000 volumes, and that doesn’t include the Kendallville and Ligonier libraries, or what I have boxed up in the garage.

Eventually, as I researched another history project, I discovered the library held microfilms of old newspapers. For many months I holed up in there, going through papers instead of books, and now that library holds the book that resulted from my research. Smoky Days and Sleepless Nights exists directly because of the Noble County Public Library.

Hm. Now that I think of it, all my written works exist because of the Noble County Public Library. Head on up there, and read all about it.
Come to Albion! We have books!
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