In my youth in the Midwest, really where the West begins – Nebraska – there were tiny towns with tiny libraries filled with large librarians. Large in the sense that they loomed over the children who wandered the shelves of their own volition, as well as those parked there who threw spitballs. As soon as I could walk the six blocks to the local tiny tiny library, I had a card and a bike to carry home more books than I could tuck under my arm. Well, at first a wagon, where I tried to keep the dog bonneted and seated for the trip along the Oregon Trail, surely my route. Passing huge sunflowers and zinnias lining the cracked sidewalks in the quiet of midday, I daydreamed of whatever lay beyond the endless wheat that encircled the town. By the time I made it to the shelves, I was ready for Oz, and everything else. A librarian shaped like Willa Cather and smelling of camphor when she bent over, hand to knees, offered reading suggestions. “Aren’t you out of Nancy Drew by now? Here, try Tom Swift.” To encourage my visits, my grandmother offered me one dollar for every book I read during the summer. By deducing that poetry was the genre that came with the fewest pages, I was rich by fall.
We moved to a much larger tiny town with its own tiny library by the time I was in third grade. I’d learned a new word just for the librarian: anthropology. She had to look up its meaning, then directed me curtly to Two Years Before the Mast, KonTiki, and a fiction series by the now forgotten Bess Streeter Aldrich, Nebraska’s answer to Laura Ingalls Wilder. That was the best she could offer on the “study of man.”
By eighth grade I was the tallest girl in the class, gawky and with a single long braid down my back and red pointy glasses. The librarians – why were they getting so old? – greeted me with new arrivals and tsked at some of my choices, especially the science fiction. I’d start reading books on my walk home, having learned earlier that you can’t read and ride a bike at the same time. Sometimes during the mile or so hike, I’d finish a book and turn around and go back for another. Reading so intently made sense: nothing ever changed along my route, and the alfalfa field behind our house at the edge of town would stop me if I passed it. After the first bark of the neighbor’s bulldog on his too-long rope, I’d jaywalk across the street without pausing in my page-turning, certain no car would hit me. There were no cars, or almost none, and I could hear the engine trouble of a truck hauling grain from a half mile away.
As soon as possible, I fled my tiny town with its tiny library for a school with librarian nuns near New York City. Weren’t librarians always nuns? Then I went farther, to England, where librarians at the Bodleian kept their library warm with the body heat of the students. Unfortunately, it was between terms. I had to run hot water over my hands in the bathroom, the only way to get my stiff fingers to turn pages. I spent most of the next year as a totally unqualified rare manuscript curator at McGill University, plunging my gloved hands into 18th century chests piled with dusty letters bound with ribbons, and papers fastened with sharp straight pins. I bled, but I also poked Duchamp and Enrico Donati’s Please Touch that I found in the library’s safe, its cover a pair of foam-rubber breasts glued to a ragged piece of black velvet. The incunabula I was assigned to determine the provenance of sat on my desk like a stone, its mysteries unyielding. I skipped lunch and stole cookies from the tin in the lunch room because I needed money: I would soon run off from the best job I ever had with a too-attractive medical student. No nun me. I returned to attending school, seven more, evaluating them by library. The University of British Columbia had the most beautiful underground reading room; Columbia had stacks where you could kiss.
Fast forward thirty-four years. My memoir, Black Glasses Like Clark Kent, about U.S. executions of U.S. servicemen in postwar Japan required the enthusiasm and guidance of a librarian at Fordham to counter those at the National Archives who were less than enthusiastic about uncovering the evidence. When I requested my FOIA box, it took hours to receive, then I couldn’t order anything else until I signed a document saying I’d returned it—which no one told me. Hours passed. One of the librarians suggested that memoir blows things out of proportion and told me about the time he was a detective and his pistol slid down his pant leg, and how he was always careful not to blow that out of proportion. I didn’t laugh. I suspected that they were concealing material, but more likely the reduction of their salaries and staff made it impossible for them to pursue complicated citations, and of course, misfiling hides a document forever. The efficient librarian at the U.S. Army War College was sympathetic and managed to produce a letter detailing the orgies in Tokyo by American soldiers after the end of the war. At the Correctional Library of Japan, a curator was delighted to give me copies of Occupation photos. “So seldom have Americans wanted to know about how we were faring,” she said.
For my biography, Anything That Burns You: A Portrait of Lola Ridge, Radical Poet, a maritime librarian(who knew there were librarians who specialized in water?) told me how women from New Zealand sailed to North America penned up in “virgin cages” in the ship’s hold so as not to be accused of waywardness on the voyage. A librarian at the Beinecke Library at Yale couldn’t find the letter I wanted but emailed instead a quote from an unpublished manuscript that I’d never have found, let alone requested. Columbia University’s library was missing the microfilm of a New Zealand turn-of-the-last century potboiler, but my tiny tiny local library found it.
I now spend half the year writing in that library. It’s more of a town center than libraries used to be, and Shhh! isn’t enforced with the same rigor as it was by the looming librarians of yore, but it has a vibrant feeling of a necessary institution that will survive. After all, even the librarians in my childhood library now spend most of their time advising those parked at the double banks of computer terminals, often itinerant ranch hands surfing the net for more cows to herd.
I bike past the Long Island Sound on my way to my tiny library, thinking of oceans – of grass. My latest book, Great American Desert, will be published in March. I’ve worked so much at this library that the librarians put me in the brochure, and then asked me to be on the board. Perhaps it is fitting to be pondering matters fiscal and practical at last for those looming librarians. But I like to think that by writing eighteen books, I’ve made the library that much less tiny.
A Guggenheim fellow, Terese Svoboda has published eighteen books of poetry, memoir, biography, a book of translation from the Nuer, and fiction, most recently Great American Desert, a book of stories about climate from prehistoric times to the future. In a starred review, Kirkus writes: “[Svoboda’s] enigmatic sentences, elliptical narratives, and percussive plots delve into the possibilities of form, genre, and plausible futures, but always with an eye on the vast subterranean psychologies of her all-too-real creations.” Bloomsbury Review claims that “Terese Svoboda is one of those writers you would be tempted to read regardless of the setting or the period or the plot or even the genre.” You can purchase Great American Desert here: https://www.indiebound.org/book/9780814255209