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For the love of books

I’m working on an artist’s statement, so I’ve been thinking about my early experiences with reading and art. When I think back to how books became so magical to me, I think of the library at my elementary school. The library occupied the core of the building—its literal heart—and you could enter it from three of the four sides of the main building from the first grade floor. I remember the tactile feeling of the walls, of the interior room where we’d gather on the carpet to hear Mrs. Siler, my elementary school’s librarian, read to us. Perhaps this part of the building used to be external because the wall we leaned against was made of stacked stone and mortar. I used to run my fingers along it, tracing the sandy joints as I listened to her read.

Far from the caricatures of librarians, Mrs. Siler was quick to smile—but she was no pushover either. She had wire rimmed glasses (in accordance with the stereotype) and reddish hair that was fading to sepia, which she wore pulled back away from her face in a braid that ran down most of her back. (I remember wondering aloud why so much of it was loose at the bottom, as it was usually only four or five crossovers of hair at the top and the rest hung down in a wavy, open ponytail. One of my friends speculated that the rest was just “split ends,” and I was young enough to not know what that meant, but it also felt like blasphemy to talk about Mrs. Siler this way.) She wore corduroy pencil skirts and denim jumpsuits, and now I imagine she was probably an aging hippie. But I didn’t know that then.

Even though my parents would read to my sister and me every night, it was Mrs. Siler who opened the world of research to us. She showed us the card catalogue, and how to use various reference books. I remember information scavenger hunts that I knew other students seemed to resent, but I always found them exhilarating. When I was in fourth grade and working on a creative writing project, I wanted to look up names for my characters in a “Native American dictionary.” I now know that such a thing does not, and could not, exist, since Native Americans are not a monolithic group (of course), but I remember how gently she entertained my question, and how she tried to help me find what I was looking for, even still. Now I find it quaint how fervently I believed that, if such a thing existed, it would be in my elementary school’s collection. (By transitive property, if it was not there, then it must not exist.)

Every child imagines her experience to be universal, so it is only now that I realize that what I remember of the library from my elementary school was probably not like everyone else’s early library experiences. I know my students suffer from what is now termed “library anxiety,” and I wonder how to combat that many years later. I thank Mrs. Siler for sharing her love of books and knowledge with this clueless, but curious, little girl.

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