Saturday, August 19, 2017

Library Days

The former Greensburg Public Library on South Main St.
I was probably nine, maybe ten when I got my first library card. It was a momentous act. I doubt that I had ever read a complete book yet. But apart from the stories in the Book House books, or in Boy's Life magazine, which I started getting by subscription when I joined a Cub Scouts den in fourth grade, the only place that had reading I might be interested in was the public library.

 I remember talking it over with my mother, and she accompanied me to the library and they signed me up. After that, I went to the library on my own--a few times with friends (especially after Saturday afternoon movies) but mostly on my own. It was the beginning of my life of independent reading.

 It may be difficult for readers today to believe it, but I walked to town unsupervised before I was ten. It was just under a mile, a straight shot down and up hills, down West Newton Road and across to continue as Pittsburgh Street, finally, steeply up to the business district on the crest of a hill.

 The first public library in Greensburg opened in June 1936, ten years before I was born. Before that, libraries were associated with schools but mostly the private property of wealthy families. One such library was featured in the palatial home of Major William Stokes, a lawyer for the Pennsylvania Railroad, built in 1846 and situated on a high hill where the Seton Hill University campus is now. (The building itself survived as St. Joseph's Academy, later renamed St. Mary's Hall. As the original building of the college, I believe at least part of it is still there. It was visible from the window of my very first home on College Avenue.)

That library is intriguing because it may have inspired a young visitor to the house in 1852, a telegraph operator named Andrew Carnegie. It was apparently the first library he'd seen and it impressed him. Ironically perhaps, though Carnegie built some 1700 public libraries across America, there was never a Carnegie library in Greensburg. He did offer to build one in 1896, but he always insisted that the host municipality pay for upkeep, and Greensburg demurred.

The first attempt at a public library quickly outgrew its space, and General Richard Coulter, who commanded troops in World War I and belonged to a prominent Greensburg family wealthy from banking and coal, donated his old home on South Main Street. (Built in 1881, this may have also been the home of his father, the first Richard Coulter, who was a member of Congress and a state supreme court judge.) It opened as the Greensburg Public Library on June 26, 1940, almost precisely six years before my birth.

This is the building where I got that first library card, and which I frequented until I left for college. On that first day I learned the terms: I could borrow as many as three books from the children's room (but only from there), for two weeks, with the opportunity to renew for another two weeks. Fines for overdue books were on the order of a penny to three cents a day.

 I was probably asked what kind of books I was interested in, and I mentioned science fiction, or at least spaceships. I was steeped in Saturday morning shows like Space Patrol, Tom Corbett and Rocky Jones: Space Ranger, and even before that, I'd watched Captain Video every evening. By then the exciting Man in Space episode of Tomorrowland on the Disneyland hour may have aired. I'd seen a few science fiction movies, and may have read a Robert Heinlein story in Boy's Life.

So I went home that day with The Space Ship Under the Apple Tree by Louis Slobodkin. It looked like this, although I remember the cover as red.

 So many times--up the steps, into the front door, with the circulation desk dead ahead. A sharp left turn and down a few polished wooden steps to the children's room. In a few years, I would be sneaking behind the bulletin board at the far right corner of the room, which hid the dimly lit adult stacks in the rooms next to it, books from ceiling to floor.

 It was a bit spooky in there at first. But by junior high years, having learned the rudiments of the Dewy Decimal System and how to use the card catalog, I searched and browsed back there.

 I also checked the shelves of new books on the wall just opposite the circulation desk, to the left of the entrance. To the right were a couple of smaller rooms, one of which was the reference library, with a big globe. I remember reading chapters in the Catholic Encyclopedia in there on a high school evening, shocked by what some of the Popes had gotten up to.

In the early '60s I discovered that I was allowed to take the stairs to the second floor that began just behind and a little to the right of the circulation desk. On the second floor was a room of recordings, and a record player. Amazing! Classical, jazz and most importantly just then, folk music albums.


I also was introduced to recorded humor--the albums of the new comedians I saw on TV like Bob Newhart, but especially to the satiric Stan Freberg. I loved those albums! Freberg (among others) inspired me to write satirical scripts and record them with three friends (The Four Frauds) and later I learned songs and even stole funny bits from those folk albums, as three of us morphed into a folk group, the Crosscurrents.

 The public library provided access to records I didn't know about and couldn't afford to buy anyway. But it mostly put books into my hands--books I had no other way of even touching, let alone reading. Going to the library, selecting the books, were among my first independent acts.

Being conscientious about getting the books back on time was among my first independent responsibilities...And of course I remember fondly several of the library ladies who were always there--friendly, sometimes scary, but who knew me and talked to me as a reader.

Several years after I'd left for college, in 1969, the library moved to a much bigger building, the massive old Post Office a block away on Pennsylvania Avenue. The Post Office moved into a new and smaller building across the street.

 This building, now called the Greensburg-Hempfield Area Library, itself has a complicated history I haven't entirely put together yet. It opened in 1911--old enough to offer a prospect for watching one of the last Buffalo Bill Wild West Shows parade into town.

One Greensburg history says it was built according to the plan for the Charlotteville, Virginia post office (1905), and indeed they look all but identical. (That's Greensburg above, Charlottesville left.)

That provenance may help account for the prominent columns and portico--though a popular style at the time (variously called colonial revival, neo-colonial and Beaux Arts) it especially echoes a lot of Charlottesville (and University of Virginia) buildings, which themselves echo Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's home outside that city.

 The Greensburg building's interior was extensively renovated and probably expanded (I'm thinking perhaps at the back of the building) in 1934-5.  According to the Filson Historical Society in Kentucky, this project was designed and carried out by Samuel Plato, the first African American to receive commissions to build US Post Office buildings. He was also a builder who insisted on integrated work forces.

The 30s and 40s were busy in Greensburg and Westmoreland County, so this was not just the post office but the county Federal Building, housing offices of the Agriculture Department, U.S. Navy, IRS, Civil Service Commission, Census Bureau and the congressional district office.

 It seems likely that the renovation was at least in part a New Deal project, but I can't find documentation of that. I'm still looking into the history of this building and this 1930s project, so if anybody in Greensburg could find and photograph a cornerstone dedication or a plaque inside the building, I'd love to have it. It's puzzling to me that Greensburg seems to ignore this building and its history, even though it seems to be within its official historic district.

When I returned to town for a couple of hitches in the 70s and 80s I dropped by the library in its new building. The entrance area was huge, the circulation desk impressively big, and the ceilings very high. The first time I visited there was even one of the same library ladies there. I asked her if she remembered me. "Yes," she said, not approving of my beard, however. "You look like an old sailor." I immediately thought of all the books I'd borrowed that featured ships and the sea.

At this point they were getting rid of old books and had them on sale in the lobby or just outside. I bought my cherished two volume set of William Manchester's history of the 20th century, The Glory and the Dream, for twenty cents. And a first edition of Wallace Stevens' first book of poems, for a dime.

 A final anecdote suggests a different aspect of this story. Sometime in the late 70s or early 80s I was suddenly inspired to look for a book I'd taken out in high school. I found it in the stacks. It was obviously the very same copy (dark blue, gold lettering.) The old card system was still being used, with a card in a pocket just inside the book to indicate the due date. Often this card traveled with the book, and had its title and number on it, as well as the signature of the person borrowing, so you could actually see how many times it had been taken out, and by whom. Homeland Security would have loved it.

 As I took the book to the circulation desk, I glanced at the card. The first and last time it had been taken out was 1963, and the first and last person to take it out was me. The book was by Richard Hofstader: Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.

It's a small town library, serving small town people. But among those people is somebody like me; in fact, for those years, exactly me. This book, clearly of minority interest, was here. They bought it and kept it, and it waited for me.

 The public library is open to all, but serves individuals within the all. Even a minority of one. And we all get to borrow these books, on the same easy terms. The public library is a miracle. It's the most democratic of institutions, and therefore, a democratic miracle.

 As for the first book I borrowed, The Spaceship Under the Apple Tree, it's a somewhat witty tale that today would remind people of E.T. But after my two weeks were up I took it back without completing it. (I have however read it since, and have acquired my own copy.)

  Reading a whole book is a skill, and in my case it took more time to acquire it. I would soon find on those shelves just the books to really get me started. But that's for next time.

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