One of the many credit card commercials on television asks the question, “What’s in your wallet?”
Their card—whichever one it might be—isn’t what I carry in my wallet. What I do have there is a card that’s much more valuable to me than any MasterCard, Visa, or American Express. It is my library card.
One of the things I enjoy most in the world is learning. I love finding out useless but fascinating bits of information. A common phrase at my house is, “We’ll have to look it up.” And, despite the convenience of the Internet, the best place to look things up is still the library.
I don’t remember when I got my first library card, but I have been a bookworm since kindergarten. I remember childhood trips to the Tripp County Library in Winner, which was on the third floor of the county courthouse. As I remember it, going to the library meant going past another courthouse institution—the county jail.
By the time I was in high school, I had access to other libraries. Almost every Wednesday after school I headed for the Gregory public library. Mrs. McMeen always gave me a warm welcome. She even let me take books from the adult shelves that she wouldn’t have checked out to other high school kids.
I also remember the high school library, the domain of Mrs. Gerard. You often hear writers talk about teachers who influenced them. You may be expecting a heartwarming story here about Mrs. Gerard recommending books or encouraging me to write. I hate to disappoint you, but that’s not why I remember Mrs. Gerard.
She seemed to think her mission in life was to protect the library books from anyone who might want to actually use them. She would go through lockers in search of overdue books and take them back to the library. Sometimes, the story went, she would take books that weren’t even due yet. She evicted students from the library for whispering, laughing, coughing, or sometimes merely breathing. I was scared to death of her. She was the reason I, the book addict and library lover, never once during four years of high school ever checked a book out of the school library.
Thank goodness Mrs. Gerard, as a librarian, was the exception rather than the rule. In all my years of hanging out in libraries, she is the only librarian I can remember who was less than helpful. The rest of them were far more like Mrs. McMeen.
In fact, librarians as a group are so well regarded that they even have their own action figure. It’s modeled after a real librarian from Seattle named Nancy Pearl. The figure is a middle-aged woman in a conservative suit, and when you push a button she puts her finger to her lips to say, “Shhhh.”
Some librarians don’t appreciate what they see as a stereotype. Others take the doll less seriously and think she pokes fun at the stereotype. I don’t mind the shushing, because one of the things I value about libraries is their air of quiet busyness. Still, I would have designed the librarian action figure a little differently. When you pushed the button, she would hold out a library card and give you a big, welcoming smile.
Libraries have changed a great deal since the first time I checked out a book. Card catalogs have been replaced by computers, there are shelves full of videos and CDs as well as books, and there is access to the Internet. One thing hasn’t changed, though. A library is still a doorway to information—and the key to that doorway is the library card.
That card is an admission to entertainment and information, recreation and research. It’s all I need to access a priceless pool of knowledge from all over the world. That’s why the most important piece of plastic in my wallet is my library card.