Check It Out by
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Prompted By Libraries

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Full disclosure: I have not read, or even heard of, North Country Nurse by Robert Ackworth, but when I saw the picture of the little pocket pasted in the book for the checkout card, and the adjacent sheet to stamp in the due date, it made me so nostalgic for the libraries of my youth that I had to make it my Featured Image.

As a child, I frequently walked to the Belleville Public Library, which was three blocks from my house. I remember being excited when I was old enough to get my own library card instead of having to check books out on my mother’s or sister’s card. That was real independence. The library card had a grid on it, much like the Date Due sheet on the righthand page of the book pictured above. When you checked out a book, the librarian used a special date stamp to stamp the due date on your library card as well as on the card in the pocket of the book and the sheet on the facing page in the book. Then she took the card from the pocket of the book and filed it somewhere. Once you had checked out enough books to fill up all the squares on the front and back of your library card, you would get a new card. That was exciting too. (All you Baby Boomers probably remember this; the explanation is for future readers.)

I can’t remember when I first went to the Newark Public Library, a much bigger library in the next town. We went there on the bus, and I’m pretty sure I always went with my oldest sister. Maybe she was doing research for high school papers. I was fascinated with the stacks, which were not like anything at the Belleville Library. There were several floors with tall metal bookcases that reached as far as the eye could see (or at least as far as my young and slightly myopic eye could see). The books were organized according to the Dewey Decimal System, another fascinating thing to learn about. And you could find out where they were by looking in the many drawers of the card catalogue on the main floor. When I discovered the area with books about British royalty, I began checking them out and devouring them. For some reason, that was all I wanted to read for quite a while.

**I would be remiss in my discussion of the Newark Public Library if I did not mention Philip Roth’s novella Goodbye Columbus, in which the main character and narrator worked at the Newark Public Library, beautifully described by Roth. Unfortunately, when they made the movie (with Ali MacGraw as a Cliffie the first time), they changed the setting to Long Island instead of New Jersey, so Neil worked at the New York Public Library – the one with the lions out front – instead.**

When I got to college, I stopped reading books for pleasure, since there was so much reading to do for courses. Going to the library became a negative, for the most part, since it was the place you had to go for reading that was on reserve, or to do research for papers. However, at least Hilles, the library in the Radcliffe Quad, had a snack bar on the top floor, which was a fun place to take breaks and socialize with other people. When Hilles was built in the early ’60s, they tried to make it as friendly and comfy as possible, probably to entice the Harvard guys to come up to Radcliffe. Up until a year or two before I arrived, women weren’t even allowed in Lamont, the Harvard undergraduate library. So I don’t know what the Radcliffe students did before Hilles.

After college, in the years before kids, I’m not sure I ever went to a library, except for law libraries, which are a different species altogether. Certainly not a place to go for pleasure!

Shortly after having my first child thirty-four years ago, I became a regular at the Sacramento libraries, at first looking for children’s books, then for my own. The children’s section of our closest branch has a wonderful selection of books, and a couch where you can sit and read them aloud. And the central library has a whole floor devoted to children’s books, and beanbag chairs big enough to cuddle in with a child or two, and many stuffed animals and a large dinosaur skeleton made of wood. Days that were too rainy or too cold or too hot to play outside were often spent at the library.

I also get books for me at the library. Several years ago, we realized that all our bookcases were so crammed full of books, sometimes with one row in front of another, that if we bought any more books we would have to get rid of some of the ones we had. I have made attempts to prune our collection, and indeed we often donate books to the library, which they sell in their little Friends of the Library store. But in general I have just stopped buying books altogether (except for books by Retrospect authors), and only read the ones I can get from the library. There is a great system for requesting books from any branch, and even from other libraries throughout California, and in just a few days the book arrives at my local branch. Unless it is a book that is hugely popular – for instance I am waiting now for Where the Crawdads Sing, and I am number 268 out of 353 holds, so that will be a while.

This past summer there was a reporter for the Sacramento Bee who posted a notice somewhere (maybe on Facebook?) that she wanted to talk to people who patronized the library. So I sent her an email, and she contacted me, and we had a long telephone conversation about my library experiences over the years. Then, on the day after my birthday, her story appeared on the front page. And the first two words of the first sentence of the article were my name. She condensed our conversation down to three paragraphs, and got some of it wrong, conflating stories about my two daughters, but it was close enough, and I was on the front page, and many friends let me know they had seen it. This fulfilled an ambition I have had since childhood, which was to have my name on the front page of the newspaper. And I have the library to thank for that!


Note re title: Check It Out is a parody of the Taylor Swift song Shake It Off. You can check it out here. And if you’ve never heard the original song, you should probably check that out too.

Profile photo of Suzy Suzy


Characterizations: been there, funny, well written

Comments

  1. John Shutkin says:

    Just a great reminiscence on libraries through your life, Suzy. And yes, I am sure all of us boomers were nodding in recollection as you describe the whole library card/book check out system that we grew up with. I also love that you were able to find a picture of the check-out card and pocket. (I assume that North Country Nurse is not one of the “naughty” ones.)

    In fact, when I ended up doing a lot of international traveling for my firm about 20 years ago and my passport would get so filled with arrival and departure stamps that I had to order extra pages for it — which was a larger pain than one would imagine — I remember thinking how much it was like getting a new library card as testament to all the books one had read.

    I also love that you made it to the front page of the paper by virtue of the library, both fulfilling a lifetime ambition of yours and as a really cool tie-in to your love of books and libraries. And I assume that the article at least spelled your name right. Many pundits have noted that that is about the only thing one can hope for when written about.

    • Suzy says:

      Thanks, John. After finding the pic of the North Country Nurse book, I checked to see if my own library had it, and alas they do not. It seems to be part of a series called Candlelight Romance, and it IS still available on Amazon, but I decided to pass on it. I love that you had to get new pages for your passport and that it reminded you of getting a new library card when the old one was filled up.

  2. Marian says:

    I love this, Suzy, and it brings back memories of the Dewey Decimal system and all those cards. My patterns followed yours closely in terms of when I’ve used libraries, and I, too, hardly ever buy books these days.

  3. JeanZ says:

    I think the Fall of 1967 was the first year that they allowed Cliffies in Lamont, something I didn’t realize then because that was my first semester. The main indication I saw that this was new was that males frequently walked into the Ladies Rooms, which had just been converted from Men’s Rooms (interesting, non-symmetrical labels…..). The generally accepted reason for opening Lamont was that Hilles was so much nicer that the men went there in big enough numbers for Radcliffe to force Harvard’s hand. Before Hilles I think there was a less appealing library in Radcliffe Yard.

    • Suzy says:

      I arrived a year later, so by then it was old news. How funny that you saw guys walking into the Ladies Rooms out of habit from when they were Men’s Rooms. Thanks for the history about Lamont!

  4. Betsy Pfau says:

    Suzy, I, too remember checking lots of books out the library, getting my card stamped, the Dewey Decimal system and everything else you talked about. We didn’t go to the big downtown Detroit library, but a branch that was close to our house. In the huge crash and contraction of Detroit, I saw a picture of the inside of that library which had been abandoned, books strewn everywhere. It was heartbreaking.

    My happy memories were of Library Period in elementary school. A few times a week, we’d go to the school library where the librarian (Miss Robinson) would read to us and we would pick a book of our own to read while there. I remember in Second Grade choosing “Elizabeth Enters”, a biography about the current queen. I’ve always been into the British Monarchy. That is the first library book that I remember reading.

    Even tiny Huntington Woods (when we moved out of Detroit) had its own library which was pretty good. We’d frequently go there. Newton has a wonderful one with a great children’s section that I would often take my children both to check out books and just hang out when they were little. Now one can check out books on tape and videos too. Very comprehensive.

    • Suzy says:

      You probably related to Queen Elizabeth because that was your name too. Being into the British monarchy is another trait that we share, along with so many others that we have discovered through Retrospect. Although I have to admit I have paid less attention to them in recent years – didn’t even watch any of the royal weddings!

  5. Love the Sacramento Bee aspect, Suzy. Not exactly the cover of the Rolling Stone but close enough. And I fondly recall my kids and libraries. Big time reading programs/contests in the local libraries. We used to visit my Dad in FL when my boys were in grade school, and whenever we did rather than to take books for them with us our not quite first stop when we arrived was the local library to “resupply’.

    • Suzy says:

      Thanks Tom. Don’t you think it would make a good song though – “Cover of the Sacto Bee” – it even has the right rhythm. Brilliant of you to check out books at the library in FL instead of packing them. Of course when we went to FL, or NY to visit family, it was a much longer flight, so we needed books for the airplane.

  6. Brava Suzy, it’s always great for us writers to see our names in print!

    And indeed inter-library loan and all the other services libraries provide are great!

  7. Laurie Levy says:

    Great story, Suzy. I could relate to your childhood experiences with the library and loved to look at those little pockets. As I recall, they also had the name of the previous reader (or maybe those were just from school libraries), which I found very interesting. Your description of Hilles reminds me of the undergrad library at the University of Michigan, which was dubbed the UGLI. I went there to study, do research, write papers, and socialize. As I recall, where you sat kind of defined who you were. Of course, our experiences taking our kids to the library are very similar.

    • Suzy says:

      Thanks, Laurie. Now that you mention it, I do remember cards that had the names of the previous readers. Not sure if that was the public library or the school library. Always fun to see who else had read the book.

  8. Terrific, warm survey of library use, then and now, Suzy. That photo of the library card tucked into its sturdy pocket brought back more strong impressions. I also remember how my mother made sure we promptly returned our library books so that others could enjoy them. (We also had to pay the fines with our allowance.)

    You also captured a very familiar dilemma — chaotic, overcrowded bookshelves at home. As a Virgo, I’m driven mad by this seemingly unsolvable problem! Thanks for the journey!

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