Are you the type of reader who envies librarians their workdays spent in the stacks, surrounded by the smell of printer’s ink on yellowed paper? Do you dream of being locked in a library? Do you weep with poor Henry Bemis when his glasses shatter as he’s organizing his planned reading at the end of “Time Enough at Last”* on The Twilight Zone?
For about 2 years, I shelved books throughout my college library’s four floors. While at work, I could always take a few moments to browse through the stacks: flakey romantic novels from the early 1900s, heavy art books about Klee or Vermeer, old history texts that had never been checked out — even, on rare occasions, a few minutes in the rare book collection. (Why these years didn’t turn me into a librarian, I’ll never understand.)
Ellen Klages, author of The Green Glass Sea, has given us In the House of the Seven Librarians, an homage to the old Carnegie libraries that once dotted the landscape of small-town America and to the old style of librarianship, where a librarian didn’t have to juggle digital sources, online access, electronic search engines ALONG WITH analog books, newspapers, and magazines.
During the Gilded Age, Andrew Carnegie donated enough money to build over 2500 libraries throughout the English-speaking world, including almost 1700 in the US. During the Depression, many American cities and states had no funds to support these libraries, so a good portion were closed and later razed. Some were re-purposed. Only a small percentage are still active libraries.
Klages’ tiny book (just 74 6×5-inch pages of large print, interspersed with illustrations of old Carnegie library façades — you can finish it in an hour) stars seven librarians whose building has been forgotten. A shiny new one with modern lighting and plastic furniture has sprung up, and that’s where the readers go. But Ruth, Edith, Blythe, Marian, Dorothy, Harriet, and Olive settle into their old building — with its card catalog and ink pads and date stamps — lock the doors, and go on being old-style librarians. Even when a baby girl is left on their doorstep, in a basket, with an outrageously overdue book of fairy tales.
How these seven women raise and educate Dinsy in their near-Utopia, and what Dinsy eventually decides about her own future, is the story within these few pages. Full of puns, references to classics, adventure for Dinsy within the pages of books as well as within the building itself, Klages’ tale made me yearn for the “good old days”, when things moved slowly and it was OK to savor what you were reading, because there wasn’t anything else you needed to do.
Take your time with this one, and then visit a library. If you can wrangle a tour through the stacks of a university library, do so. The digitization of books will soon make stacks obsolete (possibly libraries as well — a case of institutions contributing to their own demise?). I’m all for easy access to information, but there’s something special about the idea of a library, about hundreds of stacks holding thousands of real books, all in one place, that has always made me happy that, unlike poor Henry Bemis, I don’t need my glasses to be able to read.
*Find Lynn Venable’s original 1953 story at Project Gutenberg, here.