word craft


My Library Life

Montague Branch, Brooklyn Public Library
Mon­tague Branch, Brook­lyn Pub­lic Library, Cen­ter for Brook­lyn His­to­ry. This library closed in 1962. [Copy­right Brook­lyn Pub­lic Library, used with permission.]

When I was a kid, liv­ing in Brook­lyn, NY, a Fri­day vis­it to the local pub­lic library was part of our fam­i­ly rou­tine. I have no mem­o­ry of when I had my first library card. But at some point, I had one and was allowed to walk to the library on my own. Which I did, often. To be sure, I was only allowed to use the “Children’s Sec­tion,” walled in by low book­cas­es off to one side of the main floor.

At the same time, we kids were encour­aged to have indi­vid­ual libraries. There was always a gift book at Christ­mas and birth­days, which helped to build it. 

It must have been known I liked books because I have one — dat­ed Decem­ber 23, 1947 — my tenth birth­day — as a gift. Inscribed on the title page, it reads,

“To Edward from his friends: Susan/Biff/John/Ann Elizabeth”

Each name is writ­ten by a dif­fer­ent hand. I still have that book.

I have no mem­o­ry of a pub­lic school library, so I am not even sure there was one. We only used basil read­ers, though at some point book reports were due. I must have used my local pub­lic library.

Memorial Union Library University of Wisconsin Madison
Memo­r­i­al Union Library, Uni­ver­si­ty of Wis­con­sin, Madi­son, Wis­con­sin
[pho­to: James Steak­ley, WIkipedia CC BY-SA 3.0]

At the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wis­con­sin (Madi­son) where I went (a dou­ble major, His­to­ry and The­atre) there was a large aca­d­e­m­ic library. Not only did I use it to study, but I worked there as a stu­dent clerk. It was in the university’s annu­al stu­dent lit­er­ary pub­li­ca­tion that I was pub­lished for the first time — a one-act play.

Patience, lion statue in front of the main branch of the New York Public Library
Patience, the lion stat­ue in front of the New York Pub­lic Library, designed by Edward Clark Pot­ter, and sculpt­ed by The Pic­cir­il­li Broth­ers, ded­i­cat­ed in 1911. For­ti­tude, his com­pan­ion stat­ue, is to the right, out­side of this pho­to­graph. [pho­to cred­it: Spiroview Inc, Adobe Stock]

In the 1960s, in NYC, my wife and I — she a mod­ern dancer, I a would-be play­wright — tried to cob­ble a life togeth­er with a vari­ety of jobs in the time-hon­ored way of young artists—doing this and that. Then she became ill. It fell to me to find reg­u­lar employ­ment. In search of work, I wan­dered into the main branch of the NY Pub­lic Library the one with those lions at the main entrance, known as “Patience” and “For­ti­tude.”

It turned out the The­atre Col­lec­tion — one of the library’s divi­sions — need­ed a clerk. More­over, I learned that they would soon be mov­ing into new quar­ters at the brand-new Lin­coln Cen­ter for the Per­form­ing Arts. With expand­ed facil­i­ties, they would be hir­ing librarians.

New York Public Library of Performing Art
The New York Pub­lic Library for the Per­form­ing Arts, entrance from Lin­coln Cen­ter Plaza [pho­to cred­it: Kos­boot, Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0]

I got the job, and with­in a week had enrolled at Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty Library School. Recall that I was a play­wright (writ­ing most­ly bad plays), so this was a love­ly fit. I would work at the The­atre Col­lec­tion for ten years until my low salary and grow­ing fam­i­ly pushed for change.

I became human­i­ties librar­i­an, and instruc­tor in library skills for all new lib­er­al arts stu­dents at what was then known as Tren­ton State Col­lege. I held that job for some twen­ty years, work­ing there when my first book, Things That Some­times Hap­pen was pub­lished in 1970. I wrote my first his­tor­i­cal nov­el, Cap­tain Grey, dur­ing a forced vaca­tion (or sorts) when the fac­ul­ty went on strike. The set­ting for Wolf Rid­er is that cam­pus. I lost a friend because he became con­vinced that the vil­lain of the piece was based on him — not so. Beyond all else col­leagues and boss­es were always sup­port­ive of my writing.

Dur­ing this time I was also haunt­ing flea mar­kets in search of old children’s books, build­ing up a library of some three thou­sand his­tor­i­cal­ly inter­est­ing vol­umes. At a lat­er date, I would give them all to the Uni­ver­si­ty of Con­necti­cut, which had just cre­at­ed a children’s book collection.

Hav­ing pub­lished a fair num­ber of books I decid­ed to leave library work and see if I could sup­port myself and fam­i­ly with my writ­ing. I decid­ed to try for a year, promis­ing myself that I only need­ed to make as much as my librarian’s salary. A low bar, to be sure. With that achieved I left being a work­ing librarian.

By then I was writ­ing more his­tor­i­cal fic­tion and my library knowl­edge helped cre­ate a new way of work­ing. I knew how to do research, and when­ev­er I chose a new book top­ic, I gath­ered up a small library on the subject.

Books from books if you will, until I amassed a library of some five thou­sand books. I was the only librar­i­an. And patron.

As the kids grew and left home, we moved to a much small­er place. I gave (not sold) most of those five thou­sand books to used book­stores. I had plen­ty left.

I kept writ­ing and built small library col­lec­tions for spe­cif­ic research projects. Between Inter-library Loan and used book­stores (via the Inter­net) I can pret­ty much get any book I need.

Recent­ly I was try­ing to decide among three prospec­tive projects, each very dif­fer­ent from the oth­ers. Try­ing to make up my mind I col­lect­ed three libraries, one for each subject.

I chose one. But I can always turn to the oth­ers if I have the need. I already have a library for each project. 

Final­ly, when in Den­ver and tak­ing my dai­ly walk, I plan my route from “Lit­tle Library” to “Lit­tle Library.”

Ever the librar­i­an. I just write some of the books.

Little Free Library, Denver Colorado
Lit­tle Free Library, Den­ver Col­orado [pho­to cred­it: Avi]

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