Guest Post: J Anderson Coats on her best library memory

Talking about favorite library memories is apparently a popular topic, as J. Anderson Coats (The Wicked and the Just, Houghton Mifflin, April 17) chose to talk about hers today.
At Linwood Elementary, you looked forward to the fourth grade. That’s when you could apply to be an after-school library helper. Everyone – even the cool kids, among whom I definitely did not number – wanted to be a library helper. Being a library helper meant you got to hang out with Miss Wagner.

Miss Wagner was the kind of librarian who remembered not just your name, but what book you read last, what grade your brother was in and the color of your cat. She could identify any book ever written from the vaguest description. (“Umm. . . there’s a girl in it. . . I think she has blond hair. . . and there’s a pirate ship. . .”) And she had a way of listening when you talked that made it seem like the two of you were the only people on the planet.

When you were accepted to be a library helper, you chose the day you wanted to come in. And choosing “every day” wasn’t allowed. But there was something quietly magical about coming into the school library when everyone had gone home for the day. It was like a staging area for a hundred different little plays, waiting but not empty. Just being there made you a part of it.

I was too young to snicker at the mangy orange carpet or the chipped formica counter. I only saw the stuffed dragon presiding over the paperback corner and the bulletin board crammed full of book reviews written by kids. And there was Miss Wagner, surrounded by a crowd of eager library helpers, showing us how to shelve books, how to use the card catalog (the old-school one with honest-to-dog cards), and how to stamp due dates in those little boxes.

Mundane little tasks, true, but to fourth-grade me they were evidence of a world beyond the books themselves as artifacts, a way in which you could make a living surrounded by words and readers and stories.

I’d always loved visiting the library, but after three years as a library helper for Miss Wagner, the library became a place I belonged.

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  1. says

    Oh, I remember those stamps! I was never a library helper – I wish! – but loved to have my books stamped because it was a challenge to fill up those slots. I always felt sorry for books with only one or two dates stamped in them. LOL.

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