Mama Madison: In praise of the public library

...and the big Bookless celebration, too

Every Wednesday morning when I was three, no more than four, my beloved grandmother and I would walk hand and hand up the street to the local library. The ritual was always the same once we got inside. After a quick obligatory scan of the picture book section, probably the most appropriate place for a pre-schooler who couldn't yet read, Nana and I would steal our way over to the adult biographies. I learned at an early age about the discoveries of Marie Curie, Jonas Salk and Alexander Fleming; my grandmother was completely star-struck by scientists.

And while her judgment was sometimes questionable -- a pre-nap chapter on the life and times of Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb, was not unheard of -- she taught me that a local library branch was among the most enchanted places on earth.

My mild infatuation with libraries continued throughout my youth. I heartily respected the clarity of the Dewey Decimal System (finally, a decimal that didn't involve a calculator). And I loved leafing through the card catalogue; I'm pretty sure I got smarter just reading the dizzying array of titles. And very few childhood memories will top the day I got my first library card. It was like that scene in The Jerk where Steve Martin's phone book arrives. That card, with my name etched across the front, was how I knew I had finally "arrived."

I even lived the fantasy (at least my fantasy) my last semester in college when I snagged a student hourly job as the business school librarian. The job didn't actually involve handling books -- I pretty much handed out Accounting 101 study guides to investment banker wannabees. But I took full opportunity to embrace the "sexy librarian" stereotype, wear my hair in a pencil-held bun, don wire rim glasses, and flirt up a storm with cute grad students.

Post college, bars and coffee shops supplanted the library as far as hangouts went; I probably didn't even set foot in one between the ages of 21 and 30. But the joy of the local branch was completely rediscovered once I had kids. From pre-school story times, to summer book clubs, to my own search for the perfect inappropriate biography to share with my offspring, libraries took center stage once again. We enjoyed the coziness of the Monroe Street Branch, the spiritedness of both the old and re-vamped Sequoya and occasionally took a road trip way west to hang in the stacks of Alicia Ashman.

But I rarely took the kids to the downtown branch, even on Farmers' Market Saturdays. That place always felt too cold, too institutional, and too impersonal, regardless of how kind and helpful the staff may have been. And when I heard that it was being torn down in favor of a shiny new model I didn't shed many tears. It's not like we ever checked a book out of the place.

But I have to say, I'm pretty intrigued to see the space in a new light this coming Saturday for the Madison Public Library Foundation's Bookless event. Central Library is now completely empty -- no books, card catalogs or microfiche, if that even exists any more. But on January 28 only, the 45-year-old building will be transformed into a gallery of sorts displaying library-inspired art ranging from paintings, to installations, to live performances. And there will be tons of free family-friendly activities from 10-2. Your kid can learn printmaking from Madison's Polka! Press and enjoy Klezmer masters Yid Vicious at 1 p.m. And I can't imagine a child in the world who won't be psyched to join the community mural and paint willy-nilly on the walls! In the library! While making noise!

And perhaps, in honor of Nana, the event may even inspire one of my kids to read a book on Van Gogh, Georgia O'Keeffe or Christo.

Or better yet, maybe a biography on Melvil Dewey, inventor of the only decimal system I've ever taken to.

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