Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Thanks for the Memories, CCPL!

If you're as book-crazy as I am, when you enter the door of any library, your first thought is, "Why am I not here more often?"

Pre-television days, my cousin and I would walk the four hot blocks to the downtown library in the small North Carolina town where my grandmother lived and return with stacks and stacks of good reading for those unairconditioned summer afternoons when we were supposed to be "resting" in the upstairs bedroom. The cool interior of its old building would beckon to us again a few days later.

I am old enough to remember (but just barely) the old Charleston County Free Library on Rutledge that held much the same charm, though the Charleston Library Society was a shorter walk and fascinating place. Even the pink monstrosity on King Street never failed to call my name.

So I am delighted to see that congratulations are in order for the Charleston County Public Library for being named in the top 3 percent of libraries nationwide. That's definitely an assessment I can agree with.


Anonymous said...

I remember the library on Rutledge Avenue. As a child it was like wandering through a huge castle. It was a maze of stacks and musty smells of old books. Then there was the Saturday story time with a crowd of small children crammed into a tiny upstairs passage. It was both a curious place and a forbidding one to a small child who was taught at home to value books as a ticket to travel through a universe of ideas. Our parents encouraged us to explore books without restraint and to remember to leave them for others to enjoy.

So when my sibling at the wide-eyed age of four was allowed by our mother to go exploring at the old library, one very crotchety old librarian took offense. Her sensibility was assaulted when confronted with an independent child walking unescorted through the stacks (quietly to himself reading the titles and counting the books on the lower shelves).

"And where is your mother, child? We can't have children wandering through this library without adult supervision. This won't do! Come with me."

When my mother had finished looking for the books she sought, as usual, she expected to find her child still enthralled among the stacks. No child. She retraced her steps and those her child had followed on previous trips to the county library. Only mildly concerned (remember, this was only the late 50's) she asked a librarian and eventually was informed that an unescorted child had been "put out". "We don't allow unsupervised children in THIS library", she said.

Our mother rushed to the massive front door to Rutledge Avenue to look for the child who had just been "put out". There, on the top step facing the street, she found my brother sitting, quietly whimpering to himself. Understandably, she was greatly relieved to find him and annoyed by the library's staff for their inconsideration of this child who truly loved books.

At that point, his mother having saved the day, he defiantly declared, "I don't like this library anymore. Next time, can we go to the OTHER library. They aren't so mean."

He was referring to the Library Society on King Street where quiet children, of any age, were entirely free to explore.

In all fairness, once the "new" library took shape on Marion Square in 1959 and 1960, it had become much more accessible and, surprisingly, even integrated to meet the needs of the community downtown. That's another story which should be more widely known of how a stogy old city, with moribund old institutions had stumbled into (and beyond) a potentially explosive civil rights confrontation.

With the opening of the “new” library in 1960, a quiet storm played out in the wings of CCPL. A politically powerful racist editor and a handful of local Black civic leaders managed to play chess and issue ultimatums behind closed doors until they agreed on a course of action. Then quietly and without fanfare to themselves when the ribbon was cut to open the "new" county library, all in their Sunday best (clothes and behavior), Charleston County's Public Library went from the past to the future. There were no demonstrations, no confrontations, no boycotts and no political grandstanding. Ordinary people simply began using the new library as it was supposed to be with unfettered access to a universe of knowledge.

The familiar artwork of Willard Hirsh was an invitation to all, especially the city's children, to see the library and everything it held within its walls as theirs. Gradually CCPL lifted many of its Victorian restrictions regarding what children should be allowed to read as its collections vastly surpassed that of the OTHER library which remained kid-friendly for years to come...and eventually opened its membership to the other half.

But the most important thing at this "new" public library in 1960, when my brother was five, there were no steps outside on which polite but unattached children might be "put out".

Babbie said...

Great story! Your memories of a "maze of stacks and musty smells" tallies with mine.