Call me crazy, but my family knows very well that traveling to a new city means visiting one site in particular: the library.
It’s best if we have time to go inside. I like to see the walls, the signage, the special rooms. I look to see how the books are arranged, not only Dewey or Library of Congress, but where the teen books are shelved and how the children’s area is set up and if there are separate sections for westerns and science fiction or if they’re intershelved with the rest of the fiction. I want to see if the carpet is threadbare and how many people are waiting to speak to the reference librarian.
On some visits, we only have time for a drive-by. I try to soak in as much as I can of the ambience, the neighborhood, and the building design. It’s not unusual for a family discussion to start, “Yes, we’ve been to Ada before,” with my reply, “Oh, I remember the library … fairly new with that interesting mix of texture on the building’s walls.” This is usually followed by a rolling of eyes.
Libraries have always been a source of pride for cities and small towns. People understand intrinsically that there are powerful ideas inside, growing, taking root, finding a way to make individuals more … individual … and communities a better place.
Every state should have a book like the volume just published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press. Libraries of Minnesota, showcasing the photography of Doug Ohman, is a stunning book. It contains page after page of photos that exemplify the rich history, art, and sense of humor on display at public libraries in towns large and small, those where bookstores are plentiful and others where the library is the only place to find new reading material. From the enchanting stained glass homage to reading at the Perham Public Library to the castle-like Sumner Library in Minneapolis to the stately Glenwood Public Library to the log cabin Hackensack Public Library, these photos remind us how much we have invested in our free public libraries and how much they have invested in their communities.
The library on the book’s cover is in Houston, Minnesota. Library Director Elizabeth Gibson-Gassett recounted that the library moved into their new building in 2002. “It just kind of looked like a big cement bunker, and we didn’t have a big budget,” she said. “We wanted to make the building fun, and funky, and welcoming.” She applied for a grant from Valspar Paint Corporation and took her inspiration from a piece of giftwrap. Local artists Jean Colette and Jeanne Arentz did the outline, and volunteers from six years of age to 79 joined in to paint the building. They had people from civic groups, youth groups, and passersby helping out. That’s what a community does when it takes pride in its library.
The Minnesota Historical Society Press designed the book to not only include the luscious library photographs but they requested essays about libraries from seven Minnesota authors: Nancy Carlson, Marsha Wilson Chall, John Coy, Pete Hautman, David LaRochelle, Kao Kalia Yang, and Will Weaver.
I didn’t go to my first public library until I was 12 years old. Before that I reveled in the school library, but when I started junior high Mom realized I needed a wider selection of books from which to choose. It was love at first sight.
Each one of the stories in Libraries of Minnesota brought tears to my sentimental, public-library-loving eyes. Whether it is Will Weaver’s recounting of “the beating heart of American democracy” or Pete Hautman’s story about their mother taking her seven children to the library on a summer day or Kao Kalia Yang relating the wonders of discovering the written word in libraries for her people who had no written language or David LaRochelle’s laugh-out-loud remembrance of a summer reading program … all seven authors create a book that is sure to capture your library experience.
If you live in a state without its own “library book,” make it happen. Your citizens deserve a book just like this one. It’s a love song, a sumptuously visual collage of creativity and ideas, and an emphatic reminder of why libraries are at the very foundation of our democracy. Libraries of Minnesota shows — and tells — that we are a community reliant on our ideas, reaching back into the past, looking forward to the future.