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February 6, 2012

From a First Visit, A Lifelong Appreciation

Michael Kurtianyk

My first experience visiting a public library occurred when I was in the first grade in Syracuse, NY. I was fortunate enough to go with the second graders to our local library.


Arrangements had to be made ahead of time for me to be pulled out of the first grade classroom, both with my parent’s and my teacher’s permission.


The Hazard Branch Library was located close enough to our school that we walked there. I remember it was a Spring day and I was tired by the time we arrived. However, my fatigue vanished when I took in all the shelves filled with books and tables for reading.


I remember the smells most of all: lots of wood pulp emanating from the book covers; the bleachy cleaning odor coming up from the squeaky floors, and the smell of books I opened that hadn’t been opened in years.


I can still see the fluorescent lights hanging low from the drop ceilings. There were so many throughout the library that they gave me a headache. It became something I became accustomed to on subsequent visits.


I remember the sound of a librarian shushing (yes, shushing!) a second grader when he got too loud. There were two or three librarians there making sure that we spoke in hushed tones and that our voices didn’t get too carried away.


I opened a book that I had no idea what it was about. I wanted to open every book. I opened one book that probably hadn’t been opened in 50 years: the covers creaked opened and the pages started crumbling. I quickly put that one back.


The book I checked out that day was one on George Washington. I’d heard of him in school. He seemed important. The book had some heft to it. And so I took it home and showed my parents. They seemed to appreciate that I took out a book, and that I signed up for a library card, also. They likely also knew that I would never finish the encyclopedic-sized book on President Washington.


Whenever I go back to the Hazard Branch library I remember my first visit back in the first grade. I try to stop in with my family every time we visit my mother there. Whereas back then we had to be quiet inside the library, even church-silent, it’s different today. Today’s libraries are teeming with activity and voices – as it should be.


In an article titled “A Country Without Libraries,” published in the New York Review of Books, the poet Charles Simic wrote:


“Over the years I thoroughly explored many libraries, big and small, discovering numerous writers and individual books I never knew existed, a number of them completely unknown, forgotten, and still very much worth reading. No class I attended at the university could ever match that. Even libraries in overseas army bases and in small, impoverished factory towns in New England had their treasures, like long-out of print works of avant-garde literature and hard-boiled detective stories of near-genius.”


Even today I remember my first visit to a library. I hope you do, too.


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