Wednesday, September 25, 2013

What I Did and Didn't Say in my Speech on the Occasion of West University Library's 50th Anniversary

Mind you, giving speeches is not my thing. But when asked to plan a short speech on the occasion of an event planned to celebrate West University Branch Library's 50th Anniversary, of course I agreed. After all, I worked there from 1981 - 2009. As I told the people in the audience, I came to librarianship as an introvert, but became, if not an extrovert, at least an extroverted introvert. I learned plenty about management, customer service and leadership due to HCPL's commitment to continuing education and training. In the branch, day by day, I learned so much about both books and people.
When public librarians gather amongst themselves, they are likely to comment that at times, they feel like bartenders. Instead of booze, we pour out information and resources in many formats. We listen to our customers' stories. This is a sacred, confidential privilege. We are asked about bankruptcy, divorce, addictions, health issues, just all sorts of problems. Often we are among the first to know that a woman is pregnant when she checks out a stack of books on pregnancy. So in some ways, in addition to feeling like bartenders, we feel like social workers. Librarians like to help out however we can. We are also extremely subject to school assignments that hit like tidal waves. Texas wildflowers, famous Canadians, animal skeletons, you name it, we hustle to find materials for the kids. In so many ways, librarians become woven into the fabric of their communities. From the customers' point of view, I'd like to think the public library is a Great American Watering Hole. Of course, having been a librarian, I am library-centric, but surely the public library is among the finest if not THE finest feature of our democracy. I know it was an Army slogan, but it also suits libraries: "Be all you can be." Libraries hold plenty of potential for all of us.
Okay, that was the first part of my speech. Then I offered some anecdotes of library interactions. I will share some of them here.
One day I was in the Children's area of our library. I observed a mother with two children as she parked her about three-year-old daughter in the picture book section and then led her older school-aged child to the nonfiction area, where the preceded to hunt down some books for a homework assignment. When the Mom returned to the picture book area, she saw that her daughter had accumulated quite a tall pile of picture books. "Honey, you've got too many books," she said. The little girl answered, "But Mommy, I want too many books!" (Precious, and this story got a big laugh.)
The West University Fire Station just two short blocks from the Library. One day Fireman Steve ran in and said "Keddy, please -- I need a book on diamonds. I am about to buy a ring and propose to my girlfriend." Sure enough, we had something and he went away a happy customer. Within time, I met his wife and then, along came two daughters. Sometimes I got to help them with school assignments. That is an example of  how wonderful it is to stay put in one community and see many of life's cycles unfolding.
West University Library is cheek by jowl next to a the city's Senior Services building. So we had lots of interactions with older adults. One retired teacher often came in asking for "good clean murder books". As time went on, she was no longer able to drive to the Library. We collaborated with Senior Services to offer a service named "Words on Wheels" wherein books could be delivered to the homebound. Thus, our retired teacher could still keep reading her mystery books. Later, when she went into assisted living in another state, she wrote to me, bless her heart -- and told me if I ever came to visit her, she could procure a cot if I wanted to sleep over!
For a couple of years, I facilitated a Senior poetry group at the library. We enjoyed reading and writing poetry. Senior Services planned a lovely Poetry Reading Luncheon for us. This was an exciting occasion! But by this time, one of the most prolific senior poets had lost most of her vision to macular degeneration. She told me she would try and memorize some of her poems but bring along her niece to sit nearby and cue her should she forget her words. Well, no cues were necessary. She spoke her poems clear and true, and they were marvel to hear. I will never forget that day or the white-haired poet with so much gumption.
Looking back, I see how very rich my library career was. I have hundreds of library stories tucked away in my memory. I concluded my speech by telling the audience it was a real privilege to be a librarian at West University Library, and I meant that.
Now, what about all the not so warm and fuzzy memories? These are the things I did not speak of, for it was not the time or place. To name just a few: times of short staffed-ness, AC malfunctions, hurricanes, floods, technology meltdowns, budget woes, incidents of vandalism, afterschool problems with mischievous kids, etc. Enough said. Big exhalation -- none of those really matter if you consider the Big Picture. Libraries matter. Libraries are essential. Libraries are not just about books, databases, newspapers or movies. Libraries are about people! May it always be so......
photo: READ poster featuring West University Library customers, the Borrecas

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Flora by Gail Godwin

The subject of loss is so prevalent in literary fiction, yet Gail Godwin makes it seem fresh and new in Flora: a Novel (Bloomsbury, 2013). We first meet ten year-old Helen in the summer days following the loss of her much beloved paternal grandmother, known as Nonie. World War II is on. Helen's father, a high school principal, will be gone for the summer to do important war work at Oak Ridge. Helen's mother died when she was three, so Nonie has been the girl's maternal mainstay. In comes Flora, a cousin who grew up with Helen's mother. Helen sets her mind and heart against Flora, a sentimental, gullible country girl. Flora is in her early twenties, looking forward to a career in teaching.

Their summer together seems to take place in a bell jar, largely due to an outbreak of polio. Helen's father instructs them to stay home all the time. They even have their groceries delivered. And so, they meet Finn when he makes his way up a rutted road on his motorcycle to their rundown house at the top of a steep hill. Finn had been a soldier, but is awaiting discharge following medical and psychiatric problems. Soon Finn becomes their lifeline, a frequent dinner guest, fixer of drains and voila -- an artist as well. Helen immediately starts having fantasies that Finn will move in with she and her Dad once the summer is over and Flora is well gone. Since Nonie's old house has a history of being a place where those with TB and other problems can recover, Helen feels sure such an arrangement will be perfect.

Flora is the soul of kindness, but Helen only resents her. Helen moves into her grandmother's room and hears her voice in her head, uncannily calling up her grandmother's wisdom as needed. Helen absolutely hates the fact that Flora and Nonie had a long history of correspondence by mail. She sneaks into Flora's room and reads their letters. Flora is also full of tales about Helen's mother. Helen feels so overshadowed by Flora, but does have moments when she gives the woman credit for her bumbling acts of kindness. They even play school together so Flora can practice being a teacher.

Godwin gives us just a hint or two that something will go wrong by summer's end. Something will happen to Flora. And so the author admirably builds an atmosphere of dread and forthcoming doom.  Poor Helen looks forward to her 11th birthday, hoping her father will come home for a visit. And that is the point in this enormously affecting novel where I will leave off describing plot details. Truly a masterpiece of characterization, Flora: a Novel will haunt you. Each major and minor character is sharply drawn. Helen has control issues; of course she does. She is trying to reorder her world and make sense of all she has lost. Your heart will ache for her, but you will also want to give her a good talking to. I would go so far as to compare it favorably with Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. Read it and see if you agree with my comparison!