Jack D. Hunter's Blog

29 December 2007

I Love Libraries

I was driving north on U.S. 1 today, and, while waiting for the green light at a major intersection, my gaze wandered to the county library building, a large, pleasant, Florida-type structure surrounded by trees and the busy-busy of a Friday noon. I reverted to type, of course. While waiting and watching anything, I almost always link to a memory. The writer’s curse, and all that.

I’d fallen in love with libraries when I was still wearing knickers and freckles.

It was in the Great Depression of the l930s. We were living in Kenmore, N.Y., near Du Pont’s Buffalo film plant, where my father had one of the few steady jobs going at the time. We kids pretty much had to devise our own entertainment in those lean days and my major pastime (even before model airplane building) was reading. I’d been through all the tomes in the house, from Dad’s college electrical engineering texts to Mom’s recipe books, which shows how hopeless my addiction to the printed word had become.

Dime novels were big in those days, and my favorites were Daredevil Aces, G-8 and His Battle Aces, and Sky Fighters — pulp magazines devoted to blood-and-thunder stories on World War I flying. Dad said he didn’t want to see me reading these, however, because the dialogue occasionally included a “hell” or “damn” or a leering reference to “ladies of the evening.”

So, from my weekly allowance of 25¢, earned by shoveling snow and removing the ashes from the coal furnace and the water from the icebox drip pan, I’d manage to save three dimes a month for my World War I aviation favorites, which — honoring Dad’s proscription — I’d read (where he couldn’t see me) either in the cellar or by flashlight under the covers after going to bed.

But one day I discovered the public library, and my recreational reading life was forever changed. I was lured away from the pulps, and I never seriously returned.

What a wonderful thing: I was only a kid, and yet the nice ladies at the big desk wou1d let me borrow any book in the place. (Well, almost any book. There were some, on the high shelves in the adult stacks, that made Miss Simmons blush and shoo me off to the Boys’ Adventure Section when I went to the desk to ask her if I could see what they were about.)

The rooms were always quiet, and they smelled of paper and leather and polished wood, and I liked to go there after school and sit by the big window and leaf through books in the glow of the fading afternoon. I was surrounded by the assembled wisdom of centuries, and it was exciting to know that I could draw on it at will.

And for nothing. That was the greatest part. Without surrendering a penny of my allowance, I could share in some of mankind’s most wonderful experiences and ideas.

In later years I became familiar with many kinds of libraries — public, endowed, governmental, college and university, special. But whatever their form, their overriding mission was to make information available, not only via books but also by recordings and tapes and films.

And phones.

One of the greatest resources I had in my industrial-journalism days, for instance, was the reference desk at the Wilmington Institute Free Library. I don’t know what it’s like today, having lost touch there, but in those days I could simply dial the desk and say, “Hi. I’m doing an article and I need to know how many kloids were sold by the U.S. dubiator industry in 1923.” And, in almost no time at all, the friendly voice would call back with the figure.

But the fastest and gaudiest assist I ever got from a library telephone reference service came from an unlikely source: the Pentagon.

It was in 1964, and I was researching my first spy novel. I was tapping a lot of my experience as a counter-intelligence type in War Two but the novel needed two pieces of critical detail that hadn’t seemed all that notable in my Nazi-dodging days: (1) the moon phases in March of 1945, and (2) the date in that month of the American air raid on Munich that occurred closest to the quarter-moon.

I was being so picky because, as any writer will tell you, there’s always Somebody Who Knows. I mean, no matter how esoteric the subject, there’s always one reader somewhere who’s an expert ready to nail you for the slightest error. In this case, I didn’t want some former OSS guy to read my novel and sneer, “This klutz doesn’t know anything about spying. He doesn’t even know that Munich wasn’t raided during a quarter-moon.” You get the idea.

So I called the PR people at the Pentagon, and a WAC colonel, after listening to my problem, said, “I’ll check our library and call you back.”

She did. In 15 minutes. And she told me that the quarter-moon was on March 24, 1945, and that there was a major air raid on Munich the next day. I thanked her and prepared to ring off.

But she held on. “Hey, wait. There’s more.” And there was: decades after the fact, she gave me the precise number of planes in the raid, their unit designations, the takeoff and rendezvous times and places, the altitude of the bombing run, the tonnage dropped, the number of the planes and men lost, the types of German resistance encountered, the cloud conditions, the wind direction, the temperature extremes.

Overwhelmed, I could only say, “Thanks again, Colonel. If you think I’m impressed, you’re right — ”

“Wait. Don’t hang up,” the lady said. “Don’t you want the barometric pressure?”

Sitting in traffic, I was remembering such things. And, staring at the county library building, I realized those old days were really gone forever. Today’s libraries provide not only books and phone reference desks, they’re also tied into the internet, where a gazillion search engines can dish up the most esoteric data there ever was or will be. Any school kid can walk into a reasonably endowed local library and, in the time it takes to swallow an Oreo, find out who was mayor of the English village of Ham on Rye in 1505, when men wore panty hose and tin hats and thought the earth was flat.

Still, I thought, that same school kid will likely never fully taste the joys of quiet, long-term recreational reading. In today’s world, with its demand for instant service, instant knowledge, instant playbacks, instant fulfillment and gratification, a kid with a TV and a PC and a cell phone and an iPod simply can’t be expected to do a whole bunch of rummaging through the library stacks as a way of getting his jollies.

A shame, really. The acquisition of knowledge and lore is valuable under any circumstances, to be sure, but a certain magic seems to play out when the acquisition takes place amid towering walls of books, in the mellow light coming through tall windows, in a serene hush redolent of burnished leather and aging paper and assembled wisdom.

Time was when leisure was a rare thing, enjoyed only by the wealthy and the specially privileged. But it’s now everybody’s thing, and there seems to be a mad race for ways to spend it — from rock concerts to pro sports, from judo lessons to belly dancing.

As the light changed and I drove on, it occurred to me that in the frenzied context of Big Leisure and Electronics, when publishers are producing more and more books that are being read by fewer and fewer people, libraries will never be the same.

But heck, nothing stays the same, eh?

And once again I thought how glad I am I lived when I did.

Copyright © 2007 by Jack D. Hunter.  All rights reserved.  No part of this document may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission from the author.