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The Library By Steve Fox (submitted via website, 10/21/2012

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I don’t remember libraries being as important to me as a child as they have been since my wife Jeanine and I got married. Every place we have lived—Louisville, Kentucky; Madison, Wisconsin; and for the past 20 years, Indianapolis—the city and neighborhood libraries have been our most frequented locations. To us, the library means almost as much as a church or temple does to other people. Not to say that we worship books; to be honest, we don’t really worship anything or anyone. But like a church, a library can be a site for silent reflection, reading important texts, celebrating heritage and community, even listening to wise speakers. We have spent most of our time at the Irvington library branch and the Central Library downtown, though we have also enjoyed visiting other branches, especially historic Carnegie libraries such as Spades Park and East Washington, and the tiny but vibrant Fountain Square branch where Jeanine worked for several years. (Yes, Jeanine is a librarian, though when we first married she wasn’t.) Indianapolis is fortunate to have a well-established library system with branches in many neighborhoods, and when a budget crisis threatened to close some of those branches, we joined our fellow citizens in protesting any such closures. We agreed with other people who said that libraries are essential to having a well-educated, informed, and livable city. It would be a tragedy to cut back on libraries, which serve people of all socio-economic classes, ethnic groups, ages, occupations, and interests. When you walk into a library, there are no admission fees, no membership requirements, no hazings or screenings. It really is come one, come all. When we moved to Indianapolis in summer 1992, we bought a 1930s-era home in Irvington on the east side. We wanted to live in a historic neighborhood with older homes, tree-lined streets, sidewalks, parks, and local businesses. At that time, the Irvington branch library was called the Brown Library, in honor of a former Irvington resident, Hilton U. Brown, editor of the Indianapolis News and vice president of Indianapolis Newspapers Inc. (We later found out that one of our neighbors is Brown’s great-granddaughter.) The Brown branch was built in 1956 on the same site as the previous library building, on E. Washington St. just a block down from Audubon Rd. In good weather we would walk to the branch, usually with our children—at that time, our two oldest daughters, Rachel and Sarah, and later our youngest daughter Hannah, born in 1997. We spent a lot of time in the children’s section, of course. We checked out at least a dozen picture books each time, usually more. We also checked out children’s videotapes---that was before DVDs—and cassette tapes—yep, before CDs. Sure, we bought some of those items, and are always happy to support authors and illustrators, but we could never have afforded to buy all the books we read to our children and that they read themselves. We became well-known to the librarians and staff; I remember one librarian, Noreen, who later transferred to Central library, where we would see her occasionally. We also took our daughters to library programs featuring crafts, animals, and films. Every summer our children and us signed up for the summer reading program, and it was a weekly ritual to get our cards

punched and ponder which prizes to select—a toy related to the summer’s theme, a paperback book, a coupon for food or bowling. The prizes were not the big deal, however: it was more the sense of accomplishment our children had for reading so many books. Inevitably we needed to find other books, and so we would take an outing to the Central library downtown, an imposing classical edifice with Greek columns and a frieze around the outer walls with sculpted heads of great writers and thinkers. Often we parked on the Pennsylvania side and walked directly into the children’s section, located in the modern wing of the library—not so historic or beautiful, but a well-lighted, pleasant room with scads of books and films and equally friendly librarians. Sometimes we parked on the smaller street in front of the library and walked up the smooth marble steps into the foyer of the old building. That foyer held the circulation counters on the south side, and shelves of new books on the north side. The room was two-stories high, so that one could look up at a high painted ceiling, tall decorated windows, and the shelves of books on the mezzanine, approached by staircases on the west and east ends of the room. Behind this original building was the addition, with its low floors and long rows of metal bookshelves, usually accessed by the elevator. It was not a friendly space like the children’s section, the foyer, or the more spacious rooms that held music, films, and literature—those rooms often had long wooden tables in the center and old paintings and sculptures on the walls. The addition was purely functional, but still a marvelous trove of ideas, information, and stories. We are not always fond of changes to familiar places, but we recognized that both our neighborhood Brown branch and the downtown Central library were outgrowing their buildings, popping the buttons of their trousers, so to speak. The new Irvington library was built on the southwest corner of Audubon and E. Washington, and this new building with its tall glass windows opened in 2001. We weren’t sure whether we liked the architectural design, outside or in—not that the small Brown branch was aesthetically memorable, but older Carnegie libraries are splendid, and some newer library buildings in the system had features that we admired. Basically, this new branch had plenty of room for its collection and for programming, but would never gain our affection as a building. But we are grateful to still be able to walk to the library, to have several shelves of new books to tempt us and a warm group of people to help us check out our gathered treasures. My usual path through the branch includes dropping returned items into the box by the circulation desk; walking around behind the desk to check on holds; checking the magazine racks in that same location for issues of The Nation that I haven’t read yet (what would I have done all these years without the library’s copies of my favorite political magazine? Subscribed, I guess!); and then either accompanying one or more daughters to the children’s or teen section, or choosing, in various orders, to browse the new book shelves, the music collection (now full of CDs, not cassettes), the literature, biography, and history sections, and the DVDs. It doesn’t take long for me to find half a dozen items that I really don’t have time to read, listen to, or watch, but how can I say no? It’s like visiting the humane society, only it’s easier to take home a book or film than a dog or cat, who will need a major commitment. If the book sits on the shelf for days or weeks without being opened, it won’t howl or jump up and demand affection. But when I have a free half hour to fill, or need to take a book with me for a waiting room at Sears or the doctor’s office, the book is there, waiting patiently for my hand to pick it up and carry it along.

The change to the Central library was even more dramatic. Fortunately, the city had developed more appreciation for historic buildings—at times in Indianapolis’ past, the city might have simply torn down the Central library to build a new one. Instead, the original 1917 building designed by FrenchAmerican architect Paul Phillipe Cret was kept as the entryway to a grand new building, with the uninspired addition torn down. (I just read the Wikipedia entry on Cret and discovered he was a major architect in the early 20th century U.S., designing the Benjamin Franklin Bridge in Philadelphia, the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., and the Main Building at the University of Texas.) My wife and I were prepared to dislike the new building, fearing that its 21st century look would clash with the classical old building. The cost overruns and controversy over flaws in the parking garage gave the new structure some major public relations problems, and given the budget woes of the time (continuing, alas, through the present), an expensive grand new building did not sit well with many Indianapolis residents. All that aside, the new building won us over. The transition from the old building into the new is actually seamless, but breathtaking. One walks from a warm, comfortable, dignified space into a glass cathedral, light streaming in through floor to ceiling windows. It’s like walking from your grandparents’ living room into a space station! The new building is like a greenhouse of culture. The massive collection of books ranges from 19th-century novels with yellowed pages, glossy illustrations, and the scent of the Victorian age to 2012 releases hot off the book review pages. If I choose just one topic—say, school reform—and walk to that location on the shelves, I can spend thirty minutes scanning all that’s available, usually discovering interesting volumes that I hadn’t heard of before as well as classic texts that I’ve been meaning to read or re-read. Sure, I can sit at home and search the collection on my laptop, requesting that certain books be sent to my Irvington branch for pick-up, but it’s far more exciting and satisfying to trek downtown and search the collection in person. It always amazes me that I can load up my arms with books that would cost me several hundred dollars at the bookstore and simply take them home, borrowing them because I’m a resident of this city that chooses to give me this opportunity to learn, think, and take pleasure in the written word. The new library has its share of new technology, of course—a Learning Curve—but I’m really most interested always in the learning curve I’ve been travelling for 57 years, walking on a footpath laid down by my fellow humans ever since the invention of writing. Whether it’s the Brown branch, the Irvington branch, the Central Library old or new, doesn’t matter so much. As long as my family, my fellow residents and I can walk into these storehouses of human creativity and knowledge, free to browse, read, write, think, and talk about all that we find there, I will be grateful for The Library.