Sullivan Free Library's Blog

June 29, 2010

Libraries and Me by Greg Ellstrom

Reposted with permission from The Blue Moon Grille:

I can’t come up with my earliest library memory. I’m sure I went to the library in Penfield, the upstate village I lived in until I was six, but I can’t recall. I do recall being surrounded by and having my early years enriched by books read to me by my mom and dad.

And I do recall the first library we went to in Webster, the town I lived in from when I was six until I graduated from high school forty-five years ago right about now. Actually, the library wasn’t in Webster. It was in Irondequoit just across the bay from where we lived. Later, we would start going to the Webster Village library on the lower level of the town hall.

Those first memories of libraries are all about towering stacks of books. The Hardy Boys, Freddy the Pig, Landmark books, TOM SAWYER, and so many more books that I can’t immediately remember. And taking those books up to the high counter, where a lady, never a man, took my library card and my pile of books and checked them out for me. This required both the card in the little book pocket and the paper stuck under the book’s cover, to be stamped firmly, in two quick librarian strokes, with the date the books were due. A library card was very important, but I remember being rather careless with mine, and how I would misplace it, and how it got frayed in my pockets and washed in the washing machine. My mom always found it or saved it for me.

I have a vivid sixth grade library memory. That year, my teacher was Mr. B., and anyone who attended Bay Road Elementary School around then, will know that meant for a rather scary year. Going each week for a period in the library was always happily anticipated. I remember one Wednesday night, (I’m pretty sure we went to the library on Thursday), my mom discovered in my jeans pocket a crumpled up outline of the Dewey Decimal System number code. We had been told the week before by the school librarian to study this list for a quiz. It wasn’t a priority to us sixth graders, though, because, you don’t get a mark for library, after all. I had forgotten all about it, but my mom made me study before I went to bed. The next morning when we went to library period, the librarian passed out 10 question quizzes. Everyone else in class stared blankly at them. Not me. I whisked right through that quiz with the librarian beaming beside me. I got a 90%. Somehow, I missed one. The librarian was thrilled with me and announced to our class how special I was for actually doing library homework. She then allowed me to go choose my book first, while the rest of the class sat in hand-folded silence, glaring at me for what I had done. I remained smug and slowly chose my book. I remember the book, too! It was called GHOSTLY TALES TO BE TOLD, and in that volume I discovered Ambrose Bierce’s “The Wendigo,” the scariest story I have ever read. This short story collection was the germ of my lifelong love for horror fiction.

I have really fine memories of my high school library, too. Overseen by the thin and matronly stern Miss Growney, the R. L. Thomas High School library, was important in that it was the place I did my first serious research. I still recall receiving an A- on my 20 page senior essay, “George Bernard Shaw, Critic” in Mr. Castor’s Honors English class. In fact, I liked the topic so well, I used it as the topic of my freshman essay at SUNY Albany, where I received a B+, from a pinch-mouthed TA, whose name I have forgotten. I also remember the area under the high school library tables as the place I learned to play footsie, amazingly, right under the watch of Miss Growney. The library was also a nice place to watch the members of the library club, all girls, many attractive, rearranging magazines and such.

Of course, my college library was essential for an English education major. It was so huge. Three floors of stack after stack after file cabinet after study carrel. I was amazed by the sheer number of periodicals, and because this was before the computer age, multiple years of each periodical were stored in special periodical boxes. I remember reading theater reviews in a long gone magazine named CUE and in WOMEN’S WEAR DAILY. I remember a lengthy search I did to find information on the Faulkner novella, “The Wild Palms.” I also remember being curled up for hours in a carrel just before finals week as I tried to finish reading ABSOLOM, ABSOLOM, another Faulner challenge. It was nice, too, to take a break in the second floor lounge and do a little co-ed watching.

For thirty-three years as a teacher, I and my classes availed ourselves of the Chittenango High School library and watched it evolve into something called a “library media center.” Lots of great librarians helped me and my minions. Lorraine Aust was the first, Judy Waite, Betsy Keck, who led Folksmarches, Pamela Revercomb, who dressed in a tutu on days she got stressed, and Mary Klucznik, and I probably forgot someone. When I go into the comfortable, high tech, two-tiered high school library today, I am happily amazed, and I have a hard remembering what it looked like back in 1969, the year I first entered its doors.

I have become a buyer of books I am ashamed to say. I like my own paperbacks, purchased at Barnes and Noble, to curl up with during my major reading hour, which is before I fall asleep at night. I know I should save my money and borrow books from the Sullivan Free Library more often. This doesn’t mean our library isn’t important to me, though. It is my SUMMERPLAY rehearsal hall. Air-conditioned and large, the community room is perfect to rehearse my large cast plays. I’m really excited about a play for reader’s theater, which I am going to write as a fundraiser for the SFL. I believe the date is Thursday, October 14, 2010, in the high school auditorium. This aforementioned play will star a group of local folks from various walks of Chittenango/Bridgeport life. And just this morning, while our house was being renovated and my office was under construction, I borrowed the SFL Wifi to begin this blog. While I was there, I bumped in to a student from the past, class of 1991, who was there looking at books with her little boy. What a bright young woman! I have to start borrowing more books, too.

I’ve had fun remembering the libraries with which I’ve had relationships over time.  Now I have a great relationship with the new library in the old bank building. The people who steered the purchase and renovation of the Chittenango branch of the Sullivan Free Library, and who now administer and work in both branches of the SFL should be very proud. What wonderful places our libraries are.

Greg Ellstrom is a retired English teacher who lives in Chittenango with his wife Linda and dog Lucy.  His blog “The Blue Moon Grille: Thoughts on Many Things that Belong on Stan’s Wall” is published on the website of the Oneida Daily Dispatch.  Greg’s most recent play “The Girl Who Loved Romance Novels”  will be performed July 15-17th at 7:30 pm at Chittenango High School.

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