Friday, February 14, 2014

Letter to Elissa

The daughter of a childhood friend of mine read my blog post about the Fairhope library-before-last and was inspired to give me a piece of her mind on Facebook. I post what she wrote here:

I'm currently snowbound in an 1830s farmhouse full of books in Amherst Massachusetts, but I spent a lot of the winter of 2009-2010 in the Fairhope Library, and, although I love Mom's memories of the old, dark, mysterious library, I grew fond of the new, well-lit, overbuilt one as well.

I did my taxes online there, in company with others in the same boat, and that made the chore easier. I also did a lot of research on YouTube for an African drumming class I was teaching through the local Learning In Retirement program.

Plus I did a fair amount of people-watching, and noticed folks of all colors, degrees of physical mobility and social conditions using and enjoying the computers, DVDs, and books.

I don't know specifically that the older Fairhope libraries weren't integrated, but I know that the original Fairhope Single-Tax Colony was racially segregated - from reading I did in the new library.

I was raised to honor both beautiful architecture and the principles of freedom and equality - and access to information as a necessary ground for freedom and equality.

If I have to choose between the two, I'm going to go with access, freedom and equality.

While the size of the current Fairhope Library building screams of people with money wanting to make sure we all notice, libraries these days are also a shelter and a free information and entertainment site for people without a roof to call their own.

A lot of the folks I meet at the soup kitchen have all sorts of interesting histories, non-mainstream political views, unsaleable areas of expertise in natural history or poetry or social change movements, nudist proclivities, OCD, and out and out schizophrenia.

A few of them are handed bus tickets South by the Town of Amherst in the fall - the guy whose turtle woodcut hangs in my bedroom is an itinerant homeless artist who spends his winters drawing the wildlife in the Appalachicola National Forest, and sells his art in Kendrick Park in Amherst in the summer.

And, given the increasing social divide in the US, libraries are a level playing field in ways that few other common social spaces can match.

All the offbeat characters of Old Fairhope can be found tucked in a carrel in the stacks of some town or university library or other - and the larger the library, the more privacy they have to simply exist in a place where no one one will ask them to move along until closing time.

So bring on bigger libraries. The 26 floors of the architecturally questionable WEB DuBois Library at UMASS Amherst are a bit of an eyesore, but the peregrine falcons who raise their chicks on the roof each summer think the edifice is a dandy cliff and pigeon reconnaissance perch.

I don't know if she understood my point, and am not 100 per cent certain I get hers, but I take it that my piece came over as another of those irritating essays by an old codger who is yearning for the past. In a way, I plead guilty, but I suspect she and I can find common ground in this. I wrote not to complain about the new library, but I assume it's clear I find it wanting in some ways even though I am aware that many of the things I miss are not found in libraries these days anyway. The more modern ones have some computers, as does the one in Fairhope, and there is no real virtue in smallness or inadequate facilities. 

It was just that there is a certain antiseptic quality in the new Fairhope library, as well as an awkwardness of the layout of its rooms--which seems to me to emphasize computers to the detriment of books. I don't care for the pea-soup color scheme much either.  Even the last library, the revamped supermarket that never was a fit for bookshelves, was user-friendly and had one cozy reading room with old artwork and books by regional authors flanking the walls.

I think the sentence that jumped out at me was, "All the offbeat characters of Old Fairhope can be found tucked in a carrel in the stacks of some town or university library or other..." which brings in a critique of something that is not intended in my blog post at all. So many people who have only heard of "Old Fairhope" make the assumption that it was a haven for eccentrics of the kind that exist everywhere. This is especially hard for me to take. I have written articles and books about the unique atmosphere of Fairhope in the 20th century. It is very hard to describe and as soon as someone says, "Oh, I know what you mean" I know I've probably failed to convey what I wanted to. The library-before-last could only have existed in Fairhope, and the Fairhope characters were intrinsic to the community that was here. Neither was celebrated at the time; they simply were part and parcel of the town. I know people in all small towns of the past loved their homes and cherish their memory, and that is fine. But too many people say, "My home town was the same." Your town may have had many fine qualities and an assortment of odd citizens, but if Fairhope was not singular in its mission, its raison d'etre, and the the kind of folk who swarmed to its warming flame, then I'm completely off the rails.

And by the way, the old library was white-only, as everything in Fairhope pretty much was. This is unthinkable today--I do not deny that progress has been made, but Fairhope is not and never was more progressive than the rest of the South in the old days on the subject of black-white relations. I agree that it's much nicer to have a racially integrated library, but in the few times I've been in the new library I would not say I observed a large number of blacks, Asians or Hispanics using the facility.

Big library, small library--that's not the matter here. It's having an active, relevant library that serves its community. In Fairhope it is not likely that the new library will provide a shelter or free entertainment for people without a roof to call their own. It serves the new Fairhope well, as far as I know, but just learning my way around its space made me miss the kind of library I grew up in. If the choice is between beautiful architecture, the principles of freedom and equality - and access to information, as you state, I too would choose access to information. Bravo all libraries, of all sizes and design!  


  1. The old Fairhope Library did what all libraries tried to do in the days when books and magazines and newspapers were our vehicles of communication. That Fairhope had the great Anna Braune was such as gift as can be seen by how many of us elders remember her so fondly. Our fond memories of the place only emphasize the value of the Library to our education and to our young aspirations for reading and reaching out to a larger world. Would it have been better to have an integrated library? Of course, but we lived at a time when it wasn't going to happen and I think many of us now realize that both groups were cut off from the riches of all cultures by the laws that we, as children, knew as rules however silly they seem now. Mary Lois continues to remind us of a hometown that many of us recall with wistfulness and love; much of that richness came from the times we got to spend outside, in gullies, in the Bay, in boats, and making our own fun. Fairhope now is different and my daughter found it a wonderful place to spend a winter and make many new friends. The beat goes on.

  2. I loved Elissa Small's comment and just to let you know, ML, the FPL led by Tamara Dean and her fabulous support staff offers all kinds of free classes in using your computer, tablet, ereaders as well as films, lectures on interesting subjects, children's reading hours, and of courses book reviews - something for everyone and they are FREE."