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Before there was Google, there was Mom.

“Who was our 14th president?” I would ask her. “What’s the capital of Upper Volta? If Driver A heads north at noon going 47 mps and Driver B heads south at midnight going 75 mph, which one will reach Point C first? And why do I have to learn all this stuff if I’m going to be a ballerina?”

“Franklin Pierce,” she would reply. “Ouagadougou. It depends on how many potty stops Driver A makes before Driver B’s kids get car sick. And you have to learn all this stuff because someday YOUR kids are going to ask you.”

But even though I bought industrial-strength packages of report covers to present their treatises ranging from A Computer Simulation of Our Endangered Planetary Ecosystem to Our Friend The Chicken, no child of mine ever asked me about Franklin Pierce or Upper Volta. (Even if there was still an Upper Volta.) It’s not that I didn’t try to work them into the conversation.  “I’ll bet Franklin Pierce liked chicken,” I’d say. Or, “They sure must be worried about the rainforests over there in Ouagadougou.”

But my kids just gave me the If-I’m-Not-Adopted-At-Least-Tell-Me-There’s-Nothing-To-This-Genetics-Business look. “We’re not allowed to just look it up on the internet because our teacher says they might make up some of that stuff. And he says we can’t just ask our parents because they definitely make up most stuff.” I thought about that morning when I told my son it was against the law for boys to have their own flame throwers until they had their drivers license. We headed for the library.

[Image credit: Cafe Press]

The first public library I can remember was in our small town in Northern California. It was next door to H&H Market, the last store in America to sell penny candy for a penny. I have two memories of that library. The first was the mystifying sign at the entrance: No Talking Dogs Eating Bicycles. Our town must have had remarkably literate dogs, because I never heard one even whisper a desire to nibble on a bike.

My second memory was of being kicked out of the library for trying to expose consumer candy fraud. My friend Terri had a theory that since the manufacturers don’t fill the candy boxes up all the way, we should open other boxes of the same candy and fill up the ones we wanted to buy.

Some of us are born leaders. Some are born followers. Some are born to inevitable arrest records. I was born to say, “But what if Mrs. H&H catches you?”

“We’re actually doing Mrs. H&H a favor,” reasoned Terri. “It must be illegal to sell half-empty boxes of candy to little kids who think they’re getting a whole box. So if she catches us, she’ll probably thank us for saving her from a future of rotting in jail.”

Oddly enough, Mrs. H&H did not thank us. In fact, she mentioned (several times) calling our parents. Terri mentioned the half-a-box scam. Mrs. H&H mentioned calling Sister Mary Principal at our school, Our Lady of Plaid. Terri mentioned that we were only trying to save Mrs. H&H from a criminal record because orange was so not her color.

Just as I was wondering what kind of prison they put eight-year-olds into, Mrs. H&H relented and explained about contents settling during shipping. Then she gave us each one of the (open) boxes of Good-N-Plentys on the condition that we not try to save her any more trouble in the future. We returned to the library with our candy, but Terri was still not convinced. She insisted on experimenting with the boxes to see if a full  box would really settle out into a half box. We poured out our entire stash of Good-N-Plentys and then refilled our boxes.

“One! Two! Three!” We shook vigorously.

The experiment was not a total failure. I learned two boxes of airborne Good-N-Plentys released into a silent library can sound like World War III as they rain down over desks, books, and startled patrons. I learned if you intend to expose consumer fraud, you should make sure you’ve completed your research for the report on the 14th President of the United States BEFORE they kick you out of the library.

And I learned that libraries can be pretty exciting places. Take my work-study job during college. I was the official University of Chicago Library Photo-ID Maker & Locker Inspector. As Library ID maker, I was faced with many challenges such as the group of foreign students who held the religious belief that photographs steal your soul. So I made each of them an ID badge featuring a closeup of my lunch. I’m proud to say that Big Mac and Fries worked hard for several years, and earned several graduate degrees. Then there was the ID I made for the Dean. I stood him in front of a poster the University Development Office had sent over advertising the art department’s new show, so that the words above his head proclaimed, “Nude Since 1700”.

As Library Snoop, my main job was to go through everybody’s library locker to make sure they weren’t hoarding any uncharged materials—an especially popular pastime among pre-med students preparing for a career of saving lives by ensuring the failure of their fellow students. This proved one of the more educational experiences of my college career. In addition to the usual stashes of Playboys and baggies of grass, my locker-voyeur career showed me that people take their inspiration where they can find it. Consider:

  • The (man’s) locker full of lingerie that would make Fredericks of Hollywood blush
  • The locker filled with Coors Beer (not otherwise available east of the Rockies)
  • The locker filled with fourteen statues of the Virgin Mary
  • The locker(s) stocked with a startling variety of pharmaceuticals
  • The locker with several bobble-head figures in which the er…head… bobbling was located below the figures’ waists
  • The truly disturbing locker which appeared to be a shrine to The Carpenters, complete with candles. (I closed that one and tried never to think about it again.)

Over the years,I also tried to ignore the fact that many of these people are today professionals practicing law, medicine, and academia.

Of course, once I became a parent, my days of roaming the library stacks were over. Before my first child was born though, I checked out every book in the library on pregnancy, birth, and babies. This was about as useful as trying to learn how to skydive from a book. No matter how much you read about it, once you get started you don’t get to change your mind. But at least in skydiving, you don’t have to look at a placenta when you land. Now a placenta is about as photogenic as your dog after it loses an argument with a Sherman tank, but these pictures showed new parents examining actual placentas. I could only assume that terrorist photographers were holding their infant hostage until the shots were successfully finished.

And did I mention the book which contained a recipe for placenta stew? (No, really, I swear this is a thing. Check it out here if you’re not about to sit down to dinner. I could NOT make it up.)

Little did I know that for several decades to come, these were to be my last library books where the words outnumbered the pictures. As academic gypsies, we’ve moved frequently since my first daughter was born, so I’ve had a chance to compare many public libraries. As a parent, I rank them according to the following criteria:

  1. Bathrooms. As soon as you have deposited the kids and the baby, the stroller, the diaper gag, the bottle, the book bag, three snowsuits, hats, scarves, mittens, and the bag of toys and books they insisted on bringing from home in case they couldn’t find anything to do at the library, your first child will need to go to the bathroom. So will every other child in the room except your second child, who will scream with fury at being dragged along anyway.
  2. Check-in procedures. Bertrand Russell said, “There are two motives for reading a book; one, that you enjoy it, the other, that you can boast about it.” Obviously, Bertrand never took kids to the library. If he did, he would have added two other motives: one, that you get five minutes of peace with your child, and two, that you get five minutes of peace without your child. Since having children, we’ve patronized libraries where I’ve never even seen the adult sections. My technique is to grab a stack of books which have just been returned. Hopefully, this group will include at least one opus with a title like, “Contemporary Economic and Geopolitical Issues in the Former Upper Volta” which I can use to cover up the twelve Danielle Steele novels I grabbed off the “Return to Stacks” shelf.
  3. Number of Adult-Friendly Books. I don’t mean volumes in the total collection, which is irrelevant since I never made it out of the children’s section. I mean the number of books I could stand reading for the 437th time my child begged for them.

Eventually, we must have checked out enough source material to complete whatever report had been assigned. I do remember telling my eight-year-old, “No, you can’t call ‘I hope you liked my report on the Library of Congress’ your conclusion. You should ask yourself the question, What would happen if we didn’t have the Library of Congress?

Dutifully she wrote, “If we didn’t have the Library of Congress, I would not have to write this report.”

Well, if there were no libraries, I would probably not be here today. I’d be serving consecutive life sentences for those incidents involving the Berenstains, Richard Scarry, and the letter bombs. In fact, I have a recurring dream where I have to share a train compartment with Stan & Jan Berenstain and Richard Scarry. As I’m on trial for the carnage which follows, my defense is to read each of their books to the jury. One hundred times.

The ruling, of course, would be justifiable homicide. I drift back to sleep with Margaret Wise Brown murmuring, “In the great green room, there was a telephone and a red balloon…”