Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Libraries I Have Loved

By Kay Kendall

Last Saturday I celebrated National Library Week by giving an invited talk at the Bellaire City Library. This fine facility is located in an incorporated city located within the Houston metropolitan area. The occasion presented the opportunity to ruminate on what libraries mean to me.
My small hometown in Kansas had a Carnegie Library, a place that played a prominent role in my
Carnegie Library, El Dorado, KS
life, especially in my grade school years. Like most other writers, I’ve always been an inveterate reader. I cannot recall a time when I was not surrounded by books. Each summer saw me in the cool confines of the old stone building, selecting books to take home and devour. Mother would be upstairs checking out books for grownups and I would be in the basement where the children’s books were kept. It was cooler there, and in the early years that was important, before our home was air-conditioned.
As background for my talk last weekend, I researched details about the vast number of libraries across America that Scottish-American businessman and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie donated. Between the years 1883 and 1929, there were 2,509 Carnegie libraries built, both in public and in university library systems. Of that number, 1,689 were built in the United States. By the time Carnegie made the last grant in 1919, there were 3,500 libraries in the United States, nearly half of them built with construction grants paid by Carnegie. He also underwrote construction of many libraries across the English-speaking world, as well as numerous non-English speaking countries. I cannot imagine a greater legacy to have than his.
“My” Carnegie Library in El Dorado, Kansas, was built in 1912 in the classical revival style. I am pleased to say that it still exists, being now repurposed and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1987. A survey made in 1992 of Carnegie Libraries in America found that 1,554 of the 1,681 original buildings still existed, with 911 still used as libraries. Two hundred forty-three had been demolished, while others had been converted to other uses, like “my” library in Kansas. For a time when I was in high school, it had even served as the city-funded hangout for teenagers. I remember dancing to an Elvis tune in that place (dubbed The Cage), and it felt almost sacrilegious to me.
Strahov Monastery Library, Prague (see below)
I have used more grand and extensive libraries, but clearly this—my very first—library means the most to me. It offered the thrill of countless books to read—ones I could check out as fast as I could read and return them. (My eight-year-old grandson is like that now, reading three to four books each week. He taught himself to read at age four. I had heard of that but had never seen it with my own eyes. I was amazed).

Libraries have been important to the advance of human knowledge for many millennia. Babylon is credited with having the first known library, and ancient Egypt comes next. Of course the industrious Romans made improvements with their libraries. Benjamin Franklin founded a subscription library in Philadelphia in 1731, a precursor of public lending libraries. Carnegie’s American libraries pioneered open stacks, thus enabling the joy of browsing.
In closing I want to salute the most beautiful library I have ever seen—not in photographs but in real life, in person. Twenty years ago I visited the Strahov Monastery in Prague, situated on a hill high above the city’s famous castle. I walked down a corridor in the monastery and peeked in an open door, marked by a satin rope across its threshold. And what I beheld made me gasp out loud. The vision I saw was the Philosophical Hall, one of two vast rooms built in the 1700s for the monastery’s ancient collection of books. This was a veritable temple to written human knowledge.
If you are ever in Prague, I suggest you go out of your way to visit this splendid place. A photograph is included here to give you a hint of its beauty.
What libraries have meant the most to you? Do you have a favorite? Were you able to study in the stacks in college? I could not. Whenever I heard footsteps, my head would pop up to see if it was someone whom I knew.

Read the first 20 pages of Kay Kendall’s second mystery, RANY DAY WOMEN here! 
That book won two awards at the Killer Nashville conference in August 2016—for best mystery/crime and also for best book.  Her first novel about Austin Starr‘s sleuthing, DESOLATION ROW, was a finalist for best mystery at Killer Nashville in 2014. Visit Kay on Facebook


  1. So we have Carnegie to thank for open stacks? Wonderful. I was founding librarian at a library designed to serve both a secondary school and a small community in South Central Texas. I loved everything about that job.

    1. A Carnegie library in the Pittsburgh area was the first to offer open shelves. It was done in an effort to reduce costs. The trend moved through to the main library in Pittsburgh and then on from there. Pittsburgh was where Andrew Carnegie made his vast fortune. I am ever so fond of libraries and I am sure it was grand working in one. Thanks for commenting, MK.

  2. Loved your post, Kay! Recently I visited Melk Abbey in the Danube's Wachau Valley in Austria. The Abbey is magnificent and includes an active school for children and a working research library where theologians and religious study ancient texts and artifacts. The library is stunning in its beauty, and the contents are rare, rich with meaning, and valuable beyond measure. The visit was a highlight of the trip. Thanks for sharing about your experience in Prague and your love of public libraries! --kate

    1. I have seen the Melk Abbey only from a passing train but hope to be inside it one day. I recognized it through the train window and almost leapt through the window.
      I am very partial to architecture from that era and when you put that together with a library, I positively swoon. When I go in to public libraries in my city of Houston and see them being used, my heart fills with joy.
      Thanks for commenting, CT.