It started when I was six years old. I remember walking hand in hand with my mother, climbing the granite steps and passing through a grand portico supported by imposing Ionic columns. Once inside, I stood shakily before the oak-bound enclosure from which the fastidiously dressed Miss Elizabeth Grantham oversaw all things and everyone at the Forest Park Branch of the Springfield City Library. That morning, Miss Grantham was to be my judge, my examiner, my St. Peter at the heavenly gate. She would determine whether first grader Edward R. Dufresne could print his full name on a card and thereby gain admission to that patch of paradise given by Andrew Carnegie to our neighborhood forty-three years earlier.
Even then I knew that love requires persistence, and I was determined to own a library card. I sensed that Miss Grantham wasn’t particularly rooting for me. My mother also noticed the expression on her face and came to my defense: “He may be a little young for this, but he’s been pestering me for months to get his own library card. I think he should be given a chance to try.”
When Miss Grantham handed me the registration card, my heart sank. It was only three inches wide. I knew I couldn’t fit my entire name on the single line it provided. I took the thick pencil in my stubby fingers and decided to start writing high above the line, effectively doubling the space for my name. I remember wondering, “Why couldn’t I have been given an easier name to write, like my schoolmate, Sam Sly?” Finally I presented the messy but completed form to Miss Grantham. She stared at it and before she could pronounce judgment, my mother smiled and said, “Well, his reading is much better than his penmanship!”
And so, with Miss Grantham’s grudging approval, I entered a kingdom of grace that I revel in to this day. My life-long love affair with libraries had begun and I could hardly believe my good fortune; I’d been given so much for so little. With one pitiful scrawl, I now had access to a world of good stories, high adventure and beautiful illustrations. It was all there for me and for everyone else in our neighborhood, secure in this ornamented building of brick and stone with its gracious symmetry that evoked a sense of order, dignity and charm.
It was not in church, but here, in this temple of culture and letters that I first encountered grace. Here everything was sheer gift. Here precious things were on offer without condition or cost, and all I had to do was to bring the books back on time! It’s a heady thing to be given so much at such a young age. A friend of mine tells the story that one Christmas when he was nine he solved his gift-giving problem in grand fashion: he gave each member of his family a carefully-chosen, hand-wrapped book — from the local library!
When I was in fifth grade, Miss Grantham allowed me to use the library’s adult section. By then we had developed what I regarded as a friendship between unequals based on mutual respect. Whenever I walked through those great wooden doors, she seemed genuinely pleased to greet me as one of the library’s regulars. And my love for the place only grew. I felt like a prince in this near-sacred space. I delighted in how the natural light streamed through the library’s high windows, how its brass lamps bathed the oak reading tables in warm pools of light, how easy it was to get lost in the labyrinthine stacks where fantasy and mystery, wisdom and delight lurked on every shelf.
Love may never forget, but as the years pass, it does move on. By the time I reached high school, I was spending most of my time downtown at the Springfield Central Library, an even nobler structure of marble and granite built in the Beaux Arts tradition. At times this palace of learning would become ‘hangout central’ for students with not-so-scholarly designs. I remember looking up from researching a term paper one afternoon and spotting a cheerleader quietly reading in a corner forty feet away. For the rest of the day, I tried to muster the courage to walk over and start a conversation with her in the uncertain hope of taking her out on a date. I didn’t get much work done that day, and I didn’t get the girl. I should have known better — she turned out to be the quarterback’s girlfriend!
I didn’t have much luck with cheerleader types, but my romance with libraries continued to expand and flourish. In college I signed up for a work-study job shelving books in the library. It paid the same as waiting on tables or washing dishes and you didn’t have to clean up after dining hall food fights. The library job at this Jesuit college wasn’t always dull and tedious: one day I discovered a wire cage deep in the bowels of the library where row upon row of naughty and nasty volumes were kept under lock and key so that nobody could get to them. The Jesuits, it seems, didn’t go in for book-burning; their solution was to keep these threatening and unworthy ideas in perpetual lock-down.
It wasn’t until I studied in Oxford England that I encountered tomes under restriction for quite another reason. In the Duke Humphrey’s Library are books that have been chained to desks since medieval times as a safeguard from thievery. To be admitted to this gem of a reading room hidden among the upper chambers of Oxford’s ancient Bodilean Library, I had to recite a pledge which, translated from the Latin, reads in part: “I hereby undertake not to remove from the Library, nor to mark, deface, or injure in any way, any volume, document or other object belonging to it or in its custody; not to bring into the Library, or kindle therein, any fire or flame . . .” Sacred spaces deserve to be protected by all who would use and revere them.
One of the sweetest moments in this life-long love affair came one Spring morning when I was a student at Yale Divinity School. Out of the blue I had received a note from the librarian who wanted to know whether I’d like to have my own carrel in the library’s stacks. Oh, how unmerited grace surprises and delights! For five years I occupied that monk’s cell, that scholar’s refuge, that enchanted vantage point where I had at my fingertips all the books I could possibly want and from which I could gaze out on a shaded quadrangle built from a design by Thomas Jefferson.
It’s been many years since I carried a valid student ID card in my wallet, but I’m still feeding my love addiction at the temple of Athene. I now serve on the board of our regional public library. Founded in 1868 as the “Women’s Social Library,” the Blue Hill Library is housed in a handsome brick building constructed during the Great Depression by the Works Progress Administration. While its original purpose was to loan books “to suitable persons at five cents per volume per week,” today it’s not at all your great-grandmother’s library! At no charge, it lends tens of thousands of items and logs thousands of computer sessions each year. It’s become the peninsula’s cultural center, hosting some seven hundred meetings and programs for young and old. Were she to visit the Library today, Miss Grantham might at first be taken aback, but in the end, I think, would approve what she saw.
Shortly after coming on the board, I was asked to lead the fight for full library funding in our town. The annual meeting is scheduled for tomorrow evening, and I expect it will be a fight. Money’s tight in our small, unpretentious town, (when hasn’t it been?). Some will say, as they have in past years, that the Library is requesting too much for such “non-essential services.” I’ll argue that our heavily-used free library is vital for maintaining the community’s quality of life and deserves our full support. As the debate unfolds, I’m sure to displease some of my neighbors. But there’s nothing for it; this is a matter of the heart for me, and I believe in this Library. Oh, the things we do for love!
Edward R. Dufresne © 2014