Dana from Bethlehem, Georgia

Libraries have been my wealth. My daddy was a South Georgia Methodist minister at a time when preachers made enough money to feed their families, but not much more. We kids got new toys only for Christmas and birthdays, but when Mama took us all to the library on Saturdays, we could pick out as many books as library rules allowed. Our town library served as the great economic equalizer: the richest kids in our school could not take home any more books than we could.

Those library shelves offered us the luxury of choices. I can’t remember any of us ever complaining about what Mama and Daddy could not afford to buy us, but I do remember inching slowly along the stacks on hot Saturday mornings in a Christmas-like joy of excess. There is a cleanness to  life lived at the bone, a plain pleasure in bringing short ends together with grace, but the human soul never gives up its longing for choices. Every visit to the little Vidalia library allowed me a limitless world where the only restrictions placed on me were those of common sense: I could not check out more books than I could carry and I would not check out books which did not interest me. All other choices were mine by right of library card.

Barely out of high school, I married a Navy man. Our first assignment took us to Camp LeJeune, North Carolina, to spartan quarters in Midway Park with other lower enlisted. So poor we couldn’t afford a phone, so poor that the wives on our block all pooled what food we had left on the 29th of each month to make a communal meal,  we grabbed at any free entertainment. Wednesday mornings were Story Time at the Jacksonville Public Library. I remember one sauna-like coastal July morning when I overheard some mothers from town-- non-military wives-- discussing how almost criminal it would be if their babies had to sleep without air conditioning. “I couldn’t stand to see sweat on her tiny neck”, I can still hear one mother saying. My baby lived with no air conditioning in our hot little box of a house, and I loved her no less than they loved their daughters. I remember feeling angry, defensive and a bit ashamed. But during that next hour there in the children’s department 0f the library, those other mothers’ children were treated to a reading of the very same story as my child. No more, no less.

My baby grew up and went to college. It was all we could do to make sure her tuition was paid and she had a small bit of money for toothpaste and deodorant. Her dad and I could not give her even as much as she actually needed for such necessities, but we were rich in friends, and one of those friends was a librarian who put in a good word to go along with Snow’s application for a library aide position, a job she kept all through undergraduate school. Snow told me later she realized one day that the one thing she always looked forward to was going to work. “This should tell me something”, she thought to herself. It told her to go graduate school, to get her Masters of Library and Information Sciences.

Last week my daughter the librarian forwarded an e-mail to me about a call for essays on “How Libraries Have Changed My Life”: “Here, Mom. I thought you might be interested in this.” Of course I was interested. Parents always care passionately about how their children use their inheritance. Her dad and I have never had money to spare, probably never will, but we have been allocated a share in the literature of all humanity, through books offered to us in our public libraries. I am rich in knowledge, rich in possibility. Libraries are my only wealth, passed down to my child.