Self-Culture at the Arlington Branch Library, Riverside
An essay inspired by and subsequently delivered at the Inlandia reading celebrating the launch of its online journal at the Arlington Public Library, Riverside on July, 16, 2011.
“The only way to culture the working classes is to place books among them”
– Andrew Carnegie
Between 1889 and 1923, industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie and his foundation funded 142 free public libraries in California (1,689 in total). If a community had the will, the land, and the commitment to public funding through taxes, the foundation would grant support. While this library is technically not a Carnegie library, the city was able to build it after obtaining a Carnegie grant for the expansion of the downtown library. With $7,500 in “extra” funding, the Greek revival structure was built, along with a firehouse attached to the back; it was the city’s first “branch” library.
You are sitting in my childhood library. Not modern like its “boss” library downtown with the blue tile fountain you could walk around and floating stairs like on the Brady Bunch. The Arlington Branch was older, less fashionable, its milky-green, glass panes more serious—a dignified grandmother’s house. One entered on the side of the building, off Roosevelt Street, but even as a young child, it was clear to me the library had had another life before I started coming in the early 1970s. Peering into the “adult room”—now the community center where we gather today—I could see how the entrance had been on Magnolia Avenue, fronted by great columns; I could picture ladies in long, white dresses and men in bowler hats milling about and I felt connected to them. Sometimes I’d seek out the oldest books in the collection and hold them. I’d make myself as still as possible and close my eyes, my own version of psychometrics—the art of “communicating” with people via objects they’ve held. Maybe, just maybe, I’d get a glimpse of the library through their eyes. And in a way, of course, I did communicate with the dead in that library—authors long gone, their stories, hopes and heresies traveling on.
I am a first generation Californian. We moved to Riverside in 1965 when my dad bought a pawnshop on Market Street (six months after downtown’s new central library was dedicated and a few years after the great, Mission-Revival Carnegie was torn down). I had no grandparents, no aunts, no uncles, and no cousins within 1,200 miles. I lived in a little box house that was less than 20 years old with furniture younger than that. No history, no tradition encumbered us. Studies show that kids without siblings—“only children”—bond more intensely with peers than do children that have siblings. I think this may be true of children without roots to place. Perhaps they bond more intensely to place than do people who have roots. Wanting to belong, I wrapped the town’s narrative into my own. At eight, I read The Queen’s Own Grove by Riverside author Patricia Beatty. Set in Riverside in 1881, it gave voice to what I’d been imaging all along. I adopted the heroine, Amelia Bromfield-Brown—a transplant like myself—as my ancestor and then creatively “cast” the Heritage House (a Queen-Anne style residence and city landmark, just one mile east on Magnolia) as Amelia’s home and my library as her own. (This connection with historic Riverside ran so deep that thirty years later I was still obsessed with founding families and orange groves and explored them my thesis play: Orange Grove.) So when I say this was my library, it was my library. I felt connected to those early twentieth-century library patrons because we shared the same space (and, as I got older, some of the same authors). They belonged here and so did I; I had the card and the card was all you needed.
The Children’s Room is where we all start out if we’re lucky enough to have a parent who likes books—or even air conditioning (I make no judgments). We didn’t go to church (another thing that marked us as outsiders in Riverside in the 1960s-70s), but we entered the library with a kind of reverence. Beatrix Potter was my first high-priestess. Her tales of disobedience and punishment were nothing if not Old Testament, and the eventual welcoming back of the naughty kitten or disobedient bunny into the fold was a lesson in grace and forgiveness. I loved the way those books were perfectly sized for my little hands. I never tired of the mesmerizing, watercolor illustrations of little animals in coats drinking tea. I wanted to crawl inside and live there. Books can still make me feel that way. From this building, over and over, I checked out the Beatrix Potter books, as well as Clifford the Big Red Dog, Harold and the Purple Crayon, Where the Wild Things Are, Bread and Jam for Frances. Then I moved on to the Little House Books and the Encyclopedia Brown series, drawn to characters with pluck and grit—not to mention checking out every non-fiction book on horses (a cliché, I know).
From a turn-of-the-century tract written by a group of New York state librarians: “The public library… shall forever stand as a monument of the homage paid by the people to self-culture.” Self-culture. Similar to one’s spiritual path, the library path was self-directed. Unlike with the school library, I wasn’t restricted to any one “age appropriate” section. I could wander at will. Go where my curiosity led, thanks in part to Carnegie, who was an advocate for “open stack” libraries where patrons were free to browse; in his time, many libraries were “closed stack,” requiring a librarian retrieve a requested book. At the library, they left you alone. Maybe this is why I don’t recall deep and abiding relationships with the librarians I must have encountered there. They were helpful when you needed them, but invisible and quiet when you didn’t. They didn’t care what you checked out. Bring it back (unmarked) was the only contract. They didn’t even check to see if you’d read it. It still brings me a certain “mission accomplished” satisfaction to return a stack of library books on time.
At some point I moved—as we all do—away from the children’s room. In late elementary school I devoured tawdry, implausible tales by V.C. Andrews and Sidney Sheldon. And when my grandmother moved to California, I started reading the large print editions of the classics my mother checked out for her: Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre in 18-point font. And non-fiction too: I can still remember the spot where all the Edgar Cayce books were kept: shelves of testimonials of near death experiences, encounters with the beyond—proof!—of life after death. Again, like church, the library held hope of eternal life.
And no great cathedral is complete without art. At the Arlington Branch library in the 1970s, they didn’t just loan books and music, but art as well. We kept a spot reserved in our dining room for our monthly library “picture.” On “picture day,” we’d scour the back wall to see if our favorites were available: Renoir’s little girl; Seurat’s park; Waterhouse’s ladies-on-the-verge. Sometimes we’d have to settle for a moody Rembrandt or worse, a still life, but the space was always filled for us, a people inclined towards self-culture, a people sustained and lifted in this place with books among us. Thank you, Andrew Carnegie, and Patricia Beatty, and the unobtrusive librarians of my youth.
Keeping with the library as church theme, I offer this benediction, a twist on the traditional Irish blessing:
May a chair rise up to meet you,
May a comfy pillow find your back,
May a good book fall into your hands,
And until we meet again, may we read, read, read and remember
enough of what we’ve read to have a halfway decent conversation.
Bulletin of the New York Public Library, Volume 24 By New York Public Library, p. 708