I’m not certain, but I suspect stories have played significant roles in the lives of most librarians. We are story people, after all — their sacred keepers, and we delight in helping others discover their wonders.
I think it’s safe to say that the past few years have been difficult ones for many of us. We’ve had to adapt to new ways of living and working. Not slowly with adequate time to process, but on a dime, rushing into the unknown, hoping for the best, but uncertain all the same. It has been challenging. And yet, while these trials continue to come, there is also great hope. Stories renew hope.
As one is apt to do in middle age, I’ve been ruminating a lot lately. Thinking about our times, the stories that have given me the greatest hope, and the librarians who brought them into my life.
When I was growing up, every summer, my family and I would make the long drive from Atlanta to Chicago to visit my grandparents. And when we visited, I always stayed in my Dad’s old bedroom from when he was a kid. I loved my grandparents’ house. It was built in 1915, and I loved my dad’s old room especially. The wallpaper was cream-colored with gold starbursts, and I knew just where to step to make the old floorboards creak. But the thing I loved most about that room was the large piece of blue cloth that hung on the wall above the bed like a bulletin board.
It was covered in things that were important to my dad from when he was growing up. Things he saved over his childhood and young adulthood. Comics he had clipped out of the newspaper and pinned up there. Photos of him with friends in the old neighborhood. Ticket stubs from various shows. And in the upper right-hand corner, an old green button with a long pin on its back so you could wear it on a jacket. In plain black letters were the words, “Gandalf Lives.”
To be honest, when I was little, I used to glance right over that button. That word ‘Gandalf’ was strange and meant nothing to me. So, I didn’t pay much attention to it. Until one day in elementary school.
Wednesday was my favorite day of the week in fourth grade because that was library day. Some days we learned about the Dewey Decimal System. Some days we learned research skills. Some days we were given time to work on school projects. But my favorite library days were those when we got to listen to the stories. The days when Mrs. Swenson, our school librarian, read to us.
We would sit cross-legged on the floor while she shared a chapter from Bridge to Terabithia or The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. In a sacred, still hush, we listened. Not moving. Barely breathing. Waiting to hear what happened next.
At the end of every library day, she always saved some time so we could get lost in the stacks and find the books we wanted to check out that week. That was important to me. As a shy kid, books and stories were good friends to me. When I struggled with feelings of not fitting in, I found refuge in story. I still do. Books gave me the opportunity to walk in the shoes of those whose experiences were similar — and different — from my own. They still do. My world got bigger. And my heart got bigger, too.
On library days, while we were lost in those stacks, Mrs. Swenson wound her way through, making recommendations. One Wednesday, she made her way over to me. She reached up and pulled a book from the shelf.
“Have you read this one?” she asked. I shook my head. “Well, I think you’ll love it,” she said, and pressed it into my hands.
It looked like the best kind of book, too. The kind that’s been around the block a few times. Its spine was cracked. The corners of its cover were frayed. And when I flipped through its pages, it had those unidentifiable stains that librarians know so well — maybe that’s Cheeto dust … maybe that one’s peanut butter … maybe I don’t want to know what that stain is … But all good signs that this was a well-loved book.
So, I checked it out and took it home. That night after dinner, I sat on the sofa, pulled the book out of my backpack, and started to read. It had me from the first line. In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.
What was a hobbit? I had never seen that word before, and I wanted to find out. But four paragraphs later, I came across a word I had seen before.
The paragraph began, “By some curious chance one morning long ago in the quiet of the world, when there was less noise and more green, and Bilbo Baggins was standing at his door after breakfast — Gandalf came by. Gandalf! Tales and adventures sprouted up all over the place wherever he went, in the most extraordinary fashion.”
Now I was really hooked. I remembered my dad’s green button, pinned in a place of honor in his old room, “Gandalf Lives.”
I finally knew who Gandalf was. But unbeknownst to me at the time, I wouldn’t fully understand the meaning of that button until I was a little older. It was Mrs. Kerry, my high school librarian, who provided that key.
One lunch period my sophomore year, I snuck out of the loud cafeteria and sought sanctuary in the library where Mrs. Kerry found me roaming the fiction stacks. Unlike other teachers, she didn’t ask me why I wasn’t in the cafeteria where I was supposed to be. Instead, in her low, omniscient voice, she said, “You. Have. Read. The Hobbit.”
It wasn’t a question, she just knew. Then she reached up, grabbed a book from the shelf, and thrust it toward me. “Then you need to read this,” she said. I wasn’t about to defy Mrs. Kerry.
So, I checked it out and devoured the three parts that comprise The Lord of the Rings. Filled with darkness and despair, they were. Cautionary tales about what happens when fear corrupts and the desire for power overtakes all else. But they were also tales of great hope. There is great hope in fellowship. A like-minded group of people with the same mission, celebrating victories together, and in dark days, carrying each other through struggles. And my old friend, Gandalf, was there once again.
Fast forwarding fifteen years later, I became a librarian. I believe Mrs. Swenson and Mrs. Kerry had a lot to do with that decision. Looking back on it, they were Gandalfs in my life. Tales and adventures followed them wherever they went. Through the stories they shared, they made my world bigger, and my heart bigger, too.
I began working for a public library in North Georgia, and a miraculous thing happened. I became part of a fellowship. One that not only included the librarians I worked with in North Georgia, but across the state and country. I was now part of a like-minded group of people with the shared goal of enriching the lives of young people, often through story. Hoping to expand worlds and hearts.
Fast forwarding again to the winter of 2021. The pandemic was raging, and legislation banning books and silencing those who work with them was sweeping across the country. Bitter cold had robbed the trees of green and replaced it with skeletal branches, and the world seemed dark indeed.
It also felt like the right time. I reached for the The Lord of the Rings on my bookshelf and began the journey again. Gandalf was still there, imparting wisdom and leading Frodo out of the Shire. It was as great an adventure as I remembered.
And yet, something was different. Something had changed with this reading. When it came to the part, near the end of the Fellowship of the Ring, where Gandalf battles a Balrog — this behemoth monster that seems certain to undo the progress the fellowship has made — that passage meant more to me than in my younger days.
By the time you reach middle age, you have encountered a Balrog or two. These monsters that arise in life and seem undefeatable. As Gandalf stands before the Balrog on the Bridge of Khaza-dum, fire pours from the beast and its whip cracks and hisses. But Gandalf stands firm.
“You cannot pass,” he warns. “Go back to the shadow. You cannot pass!”
As I read, I wept, just like I did in high school, as Gandalf the Grey fought the Balrog and fell to what was surely his own demise while doing so. But then I took an enormous, deep breath. The kind that restores the soul. Because I remembered — Gandalf lives.
Gandalf the Grey becomes Gandalf the White, reborn after the struggle. Stronger, wiser, better able to continue the quest. Balrogs exist in many forms, but thankfully, so do Gandalfs. They make the world bigger and hearts bigger, too. They renew hope. Stories, books, librarians renew hope.
So these days whenever those feelings of dread and despair — those Balrogs — come creeping in, I try my best to remember — there is also great hope.
Because Gandalf lives.