Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Hometown Library Love

When my husband and I first came to Bristol, for his job interview, I asked about the local library, and my husband's future partner and his wife exchanged quick anxious looks. Uh-oh, I thought, and made it a priority to check out the library before we flew home.

I needn't have worried. The building at the time was awful, a chunk of 1960s concrete squat on top of a hill (the view out the main doors was wonderful), and the children's section was crammed into a tiny room and most of the rest of the books were crammed into old dark cavernous stacks, but the books themselves were quite good, a well-chosen selection for a small town.

When we moved to Bristol I came to appreciate the library even more. Once when I was researching my book on the first months of Theodore Roosevelt's presidency, The President's Daughter, I got a message on my phone saying that I had a book on hold, which was odd, because I hadn't requested any books. Turns out a new Roosevelt biography had come in, and the reference librarian snagged it for me to read first.

Eventually our town realized we had to have a new library building. Debate went on for months about where to put it. We wanted it to be downtown, both so it could be easily accessible and because the homeless often spend time there. It had to be on the Virginia side because Virginia funds libraries better (half my town is in Tennessee). Eventually we just moved all the books into an empty storefront for a year, nuked the old library, and built the new one on the old site.

It's gorgeous. The first time I walked in I couldn't believe how beautiful it was. Soft wood floors. A separate, inviting children's department. Meeting spaces, a row of community internet-access computers, and a big atrium with gas fireplaces that burn all winter, and comfy chairs nearby. I fell asleep in one of those chairs once, startling myself awake two hours later with drool all over my chin. The Young Adult section started out as a small space, but keeps expanding as more and more teenagers flock to the library, so that now they're on the point of moving Adult Literacy (testing, job applications, GEDs) into space upstairs and letting the YAs have half the downstairs.

I love the librarians, of course, and am on good personal terms with both the children's and YA librarians. Most of my books are shelved in the children's department, but For Freedom and Jefferson's Sons are in YA. The first week that The War That Saved My Life came out, it was displayed in a place of honor in the YA department, but the next time I was at the library I saw it in children's. After that, I saw it out in both departments, and while I thought it was flattering that they had two copies, I was a little disappointed. I mean, once I knew they'd bought my book, I didn't really want to see it again. I wanted it to be checked out. I wanted it to be read. But there it was, on display. Over and over again.

Yesterday I ran into the YA librarian. She's a fierce and fearless advocate for books, and she knows her stuff, and teenagers love her. She greeted me with great joy, introduced me to her new assistant, and proceeded to tell me that the YWCA Tech Grrls were reading my book now. The Tween Book Group had read it, and also her group from the Boys and Girls' Club, and she had it on schedule for another group. Meanwhile my book was right there, on the display shelf. I was looking at it, and the new assistant was talking about how all the kids love it, but none of them seemed to be reading it. Then a woman came into the library and hugged me--she's a volunteer at both the library and Faith in Action, I've known her for years. Her husband was there, too--they're in their 80s, this couple--and he told me he couldn't put the book down, and she said she felt so lucky to get to read a copy early. The YA librarian was beaming, and then a bunch of teenagers came trailing in, giving the YA librarian sideways looks because they wanted her attention, and I wasbasking in bucketloads of praise but still trying to figure out how all these people loved my book when it was still right there on the shelf.

Then the new assistant told me. My hometown library bought 50 copies.