Ronald Clark’s father worked as a custodian of a New York Public Library branch in an era when library caretakers and their families lived on site. A few of these apartments are still around, although now there are no people living in them.
Ronald’s dad kept the NYPL Washington Heights branch clean and tended the coal furnace. The 24/7 access to books in a pre-Kindle age changed Ronald’s life: He grew up to become not only the first person in his family to graduate from high school but also a college professor.
As part of its celebration of how libraries change lives, StoryCorps a few weeks ago produced Ronald’s story as a three-minute film.
There’s so much I love about this sweet little film:
(1) The message of the life-altering power of libraries;
(2) the animation that brings Ronald’s gravelly narration to life; and
(3) the choice to use video to celebrate text, which subtly underscores the premise: Books are a starting point. (My editor made a note in this text right here to ask: For what? My answer: For so many things.)
I’m going to drop a link to the video in a second so you can love it, too.
Ronald’s story made me think about the role of libraries in our lives. And it made me realize that while I didn’t literally grow up in a library… I did metaphorically grow up in one. Maybe you did, too?
Which is the final reason I love this film:
(4) It’s a beautiful bit of library marketing, even if unintentionally so.
How I Grew Up in a Library, Too (Kind Of)
My love of reading comes from my mother. I rarely remember her without a book: on her lap; next to her side of the bed; left on the lawn chair by the pool, under a leather cigarette case-pouch that held her pack of Kent menthols and a Bic lighter.
My mother read historical fiction almost exclusively, prompting me—a peevish teenager—to ask her whether she ever considered reading “anything good.” My mother died just after I graduated from college, so I feel extra bad remembering my captiousness now. Kids can be such jerks.
Anyway, she fed her habit at the town public library. We went there together every Friday—my mother swapping out her stack of historical fiction and me swapping out my stack of picture and (later) chapter books—with big print and illustrations every few pages instead of every page. (Later-me felt smug about my leveling-up.)
I remember the competitiveness with which I attacked the “Just In” shelf in the Children’s Room: The smell of a new book and the crack of its stiff spine thrills me to this day, reminding me of the rush I got knowing I would be the first one to read the town’s copy of Anastasia Krupnik.
God, I was petty.
I also remember the day that I first grokked the idea that you could take books out of the library for free.
We were standing at the checkout desk—I could barely see over it—when I realized that my mother wasn’t taking out her wallet. The woman at the desk chitchatted with my mother and then let us Take. The. Books. Home.
Just walk them out the door.
Even then I remember worrying that the library business model couldn’t possibly be sustainable. I fretted about it all the way home.
The library changed my world.
The stories the library gave me became the axis on which my childhood turned: Charlotte’s Web, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, the 8-volume Little House on the Prairie series.
I think my mother read historical fiction because it offered a handy escape from the humdrum that was the housewife suburban life. I never had a chance to ask her, but that’s my guess.
Maybe that explanation is too pat, but maybe not: Isn’t that the role books play in our lives, more broadly? We read to change our circumstances, in one way or another.
Books give us a new world we could live in, if we wanted to. (Even for a time.)
Books challenge our assumptions.
Books give us escape, or they can point us toward a path—sometimes overtly, sometimes not. (A biography I read of the adventurer Beryl Markham, the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic, incubated the idea in my small, petty head that women could accomplish the extraordinary.)
The public library played an outsized role in my life, giving me instant access to worlds otherwise inaccessible in a pre-Amazon, pre-Kindle world. I’m grateful to it. For my mom. For me. And maybe for you?
And certainly for Ronald Clark.
I started writing this entry thinking it was going to be a line item in my last newsletter—not an entire blog post.
But that’s the power of words: You start in one place and they carry you to another world entirely.
And oh, yes, that video link.
Here you go. Watch it. It’s a good one.
This library story is an expanded version of the intro to my biweekly newsletter, which features a letter from me to you along with ideas worth sharing and a healthy dose of fun. Not on the list? You can subscribe right here.