Inspired by Libraries: A personal essay by Romalyn Tilghman

By Romalyn Tilghman

 

My grade school, Lee Elementary in Manhattan, Kansas, was named not after a general but rather a librarian. Mary Cornelia Lee served the Carnegie library from the time it opened in 1904 until 1942. I never met her but I certainly fell in love with her space and felt her presence there – in the Nancy Drew section, just to right of the atrium, on the bottom shelf. Half a century later, give or take a decade or more, that inspiration is manifested in my new novel, To the Stars Through Difficulties.

There were fifty-nine Carnegie libraries built in Kansas at the beginning of the 20th century, most of them in towns smaller and more remote than Manhattan. It’s hard to imagine how a literary movement could’ve taken root in such wide-open space, before the arrival of indoor plumbing. But imagine I did!

In researching the book, I had great fun in sleuthing archives, reading the perfect penmanship of those who recorded minutes at library meetings. I was overwhelmingly impressed by the dedication of (mostly women) volunteers who conducted bake sales, minstrel shows, and women’s softball games to raise money for books. I got caught up in the politics of the women’s suffrage movement, since the library bond measure was often the first vote women cast, often because town leaders expected them to vote for Prohibition as well. I studied the history of the Dust Bowl, orphan trains, and epidemics (when libraries were closed for extermination).

My research was like a treasure hunt, as I searched for clues and delighted in discovery. If I hadn’t been in a library, I’d have yelped for joy when I found this one, run-on sentence, about the opening of the library in Kingman:

“A fine crowd visited the library that evening and inspected
the elegant building, and the universal comment and verdict was
that it was an institution of great value and benefit to the city,
from all view-points; architecturally, convenience of location and
far and above all, it will be of untold benefit to the young and
oncoming generations that may visit it and share in the privileges
and benefits to be derived from such an institution; as it
will contain hundreds and thousands of books, magazines and
papers, covering every conceivable subject matter of interest: such
data having passed the necessary censorship and scrutiny of a
competent Board; so the knowledge may be of a clean, pure and
elevating and helpful nature.”

Or I might have laughed out loud, when I came across this report from Dodge City:

“When the word was given out ‘they were going to have a
library, whether any help was given them or not,’ the men realized
the library was practically a settled fact and they gracefully turned
about and lent their assistance. Not that the men of Dodge City
do not favor public libraries and everything in the educational
line, but they believed other things should be looked after before a
library proposition was taken up. The ladies had the matter taken
up with Mr. Carnegie and happened to strike him on a dull day,
when he had been able to give away only a few hundred libraries,
and he readily took advantage of the opportunity to make it one
more by giving one to Dodge City.”

 

Angelina Sprint, a protagonist in my novel, is pursuing her PhD in library science.  People ask me if she is me. She is not. However, she comes to understand the donation of the libraries by Mr. Carnegie as only the beginning of the story, the beginning of an infinite number of stories. As did I. She starts out impressed that Carnegie funded 1689 libraries that served 35 million people by 1919 and comes to see those libraries would never have been built, let alone thrived for a century, without the support of “seemingly ordinary” people. The libraries were the vision of not one man, but of many women and men.

The Carnegie libraries are built of brick and stone, boast interiors of stunning wood, are enhanced by columns and cornices. And, it turns out, they hold sentimental value for more than me. Early readers of my book have snapped photos of their hometown Carnegies or ones they’ve spotted in travel. Last June, my own Long Beach (CA) Public Library sent an 8X10 postcard with a vintage photo of the Carnegie library urging us to “invest in our city libraries,” noteworthy since that building was razed in the mid 1970s.  Advocates obviously believed a single picture was worth a thousand words; the measure passed.

These buildings throw off a sense of peace and a sense of power, almost spiritual to many of us. Whereas others want to visit the great cathedrals of Europe, I have my eye on a few more Midwestern libraries. In libraries, I find inspiration and answers, challenges and solutions. I feel my own individuality and my connection to the world’s population. Libraries hold both a sense of intimacy and a sense of occasion, as do those cathedrals.

But I should be clear: the libraries are never empty buildings. I have yet to set foot in one that is not bursting with energy. People looking for jobs, checking the newspapers, doing genealogy research, reading to kids, grabbing the latest bestseller. As I studied the libraries, I came to see, as Angelina does, that as critical as the early Carnegie capital was as seed money, as impressive as these library structures remain, it’s librarians who dedicate themselves to sharing knowledge, volunteers who continue to keep these sanctuaries open, and readers who use what they find inside, who are changing the world. And have been for over a century.

An interviewer recently asked me what I wanted readers to take from my novel:

My answer was easy: “A greater appreciation of the history and importance of the Carnegie libraries and a sense of the power of a small group of people to change their communities.” In truth, Margaret Mead said it more eloquently: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

***

The book has gotten advanced praise from two winners of the Bellwether Prize for Fiction. Heidi Durrow (The Girl Who Fell From the Sky) calls it “a gem – an endearing story about redemption and transformation.”  Gayle Brandeis (The Book of Dead Birds) says it is “a deeply charming, wildly inspiring love letter to libraries, to art, to Kansas, to community.”

To The Stars Through Difficulties will be published 4/4/17, just in time for National Library Week, by She Writes Press.


Romalyn Tilghman is a freelance writer and consultant in arts management. She earned  BA and MS degrees from the University of Kansas and has studied writing through UCLA’s Writers Program. To the Stars through Difficulties is her first novel, inspired by her work as Executive Director of the Association of Community Arts Councils of Kansas, and then as Regional Representative for the National Endowment for the Arts. Since then, she has consulted with private foundations, government agencies, and performing arts groups, and served on national boards and panels. She lives in Southern California. For more information, visit her website:  www.romalyn.com