Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Library Before Last

One of my vacation projects is to research what I can of women in the 19th century. This means some time in the nearest library, poring over encyclopedias and what books I can find in the Biography section. Yesterday I ventured into the clean and rather sterile and extremely large new public library in Fairhope, looking for familiar objects, books, and perhaps even discover a retread of the pleasant reading room dedicated to Fairhope's librarian Marie Howland in the last library.

I did find some biographies of women of the 19th century, sat down in a comfy chair and read some of them, and then wandered about, looking for the material I remembered from the Howland room--all books by denizens of Fairhope in its early days. On the wall of an empty alcove I saw the reproduction of a picture of Mrs. Howland, and facing her on the other side, a sketch by later Fairhope librarian Anna Braune of Robert Bell, the writer who collaborated with me on my first book Meet Me at the Butterfly Tree. I had donated Bob's picture, so I was glad to see it on the wall. I continued to wander around, looking for the books on Fairhope, and looking, I realized, for the library before last, pictured above.

The atmosphere of that particular  Fairhope library, like so many booky places, was homey and musty. There was a fireplace in the front room, with a circle of chairs in front of it. There was an odd "museum" in one room off to the left, with glass cases of arrowheads and artifacts, including stuffed natural-history items such as owls. This museum was dismantled later and the collection destroyed, when a new librarian took over, and it was years before another Fairhope Museum was established.

And when a new library went up where Delchamps had built a modern grocery in the 1960's, there was tremendous controversy that this new librarian had had the bad judgment to put a copy of The Joy of Sex on the shelves. The feeling was that this book was unsuitable for children, who might happen into that section and lose their innocence. The librarian was fired and the mayor refused from then on to put any city funds into the maintenance of the library. Calvin Trillin came to Fairhope and wrote an article about the incident for The New Yorker, from the viewpoint that this once-radical reformist enclave--where freethinkers and nudists once congregated on vacation--was becoming conventional and hidebound-conservative. Our local library was at the center of it, and would thereafter be funded by committees and volunteers.

The next city administration wasn't downright hostile to the library, but when the mayor referred to it as a "toy" in discussing funds for a new building, Fairhope's citizens were sufficiently outraged to raise a small fortune in order to overbuild. The budget for the new library grew and grew, and at last the massive edifice was completed. It has a very large center room full of computers and a number of
side rooms with names over their doors "TEENS,""PERIODICALS" and "NON-FICTION", etc. There are spacious lecture rooms, and upstairs there are offices. It is pleasant enough, but the word homey is not one you would use to describe it. Books do not seem to be the main reason for its existence.

But I did find the old Fairhope books. My heart warmed as I pulled a few off the shelf; some were all but crumbling in my hands, and I feared for their lives as I know they probably should be protected from rubberneckers like me. I am aware that libraries have rules for things like this, and that it won't be long before these treasures are discovered and placed somewhere where they will not only not be handled, they will no longer be seen at all.

So I'll go back to the new library. I must read what I can of women of the 19th century, and I want to take a look at that Fairhope section some more and try to recapture the mood of my favorite library, the one before last.


  1. Great description of our library. I've been in there only once and I also found it sterile. I do love your descriptions and this blog has prompted me to seek out some of your other writings. Keep up the good work!!

  2. That tiny, musty library on N Summit St was one-of-a-kind. Surely someone salvaged that huge ostrich egg from the museum room.

  3. I distinctly remember when I summoned up the courage to go around the Museum Room just once. Part of the creepiness was the very low wattage bulbs that hung in those green shaded hanging lamps everywhere. No lights in the corners and that Museum was guarded by a stuffed lynx or bobcat.