Saturday, October 15, 2011

In Praise of Librarians

In Praise of Librarians
The first librarian I ever met drove a massive white bookmobile he named Parnassus.  The librarian’s name was Howard Overend and I was a rural elementary  student from the two-room Transpine School in Cecil Lake.

I loved books as much as horses and there were never enough of them in my small world. At least my parents had a three shelf bookcase but most of the hardcovers were deemed ‘too adult’ for a nine year old. I started reading the biography of Marie Antoinette when I was in Grade 3 and therein discovered the word ‘puce’ which our dictionary described as ‘flea-coloured’. Puce was all the rage for a season of ladies’ dresses in her court. I marvelled and wanted to see a flea on our farm but never could find one. I read all our books eventually, surreptitiously tucking the Thomas Costain or Frank Yerby novel from the high seas or deep South back onto its shelf exactly as I found it.

Librarians know all about censorship and about nourishing curious minds as well. Librarians, like most sensible people, know that censorship begins at home and that’s where it should stay. 

By the time Mr. Overend drove the icy, snow-packed or soggy gumbo and gravel roads of the Peace to our school, three months or more had elapsed since the thrill of his last visit.  I had read the current stash of books at least twice over and in desperation, resorted to the school dictionary. Our little school did not even have a set of encyclopaedias, which I would have preferred to the dictionary. I stared at the wall map for ages, willing the world to come to life for me somehow. The teachers, and we had mostly very good teachers for some reason and I am grateful to this day for those adventurous young women and men who came to our isolated school, contrived to make entering the bookmobile a reward for work finished or good behaviour and the like. Happily for me, I was often one of the first onboard, admitted in small groups so as not to overwhelm Mr. Overend with our requests.   

Horse books. I wanted The Black Stallion and The Red Stallion  and/or any stallions worthy of a literary life at the hands of Walter Farley. I had My Friend Flicka and Thunderhead at home, read and reread. I remember Howard Overend gently steering me toward the Swallows & Amazons series, which I disdained, disappointing him with my provincial narrowness, I’m sure. I made up for it several decades later by selling scads of them in our bookstore and hooking our son on the entire series. But I had to have horses in my books for a few years of my young life. Nikki Tate’s Stablemates series did not exist then, alas, likely because Nikki herself was pre-literate and in diapers at the time. if you or a dear one suffers literary horse deprivation. 

The memory of those floor to ceiling shelves of books in the bookmobile, the dusty bookish smell of them all, the quiet delight Howard Overend took in helping each student find a book about firemen or flowers or fiddles lingers still. We didn’t have television or computers at home. Many homes did not house a single book let alone a small wooden bookcase filled with three whole shelves of them. Books were the most amazing, otherworldly things imaginable in some of our young lives. 

Later I would come to realize how many librarians were the last bastions of civilization, hiding banned copies under their desks from the philistines bent on burning them, keeping a kind eye out for children who just needed a warm, dry place to read and feel safe away from chaotic homes for a few hours, and tolerating homeless folk who also needed a warm, dry place to research Einstein or Tesla or just to nap. Thanks to public libraries, I’ve been able to write my own stories in quiet corners behind the foreign language shelves, my laptop plugged in to a handy source of electricity there. Thanks to librarians, I’ve been welcomed to read to children and adults all over B.C. and the Yukon, paid an honorarium for doing so, in recognition that what I do as a writer is real work. Living on an isolated lightstation off the B.C. coast, I rely on the excellent service of the Vancouver Island Regional Library to bring us books and DVDs in their heavy green linen bags, the sight of which perks us all up. Books! New books! 

I was overjoyed to find a certain book on the shelf of a ferry boat bookstore several years ago. I bought it on the spot and began reading Book Guy: A Librarian in the Peace by Howard Overend. It is a gem: a history of libraries in B.C, wonderful on the ground geography as Parnassus and her predecessors tackled the Alaska Highway and its byways, a memoir with deftly applied dry humour, all masterfully rolled into one delightful book by a pioneering librarian. 

It gave me a thrill, much like the giddy feeling of opening the bookmobile door to select three new books, to dedicate my reading in the Salmon Arm Library last year when I was touring with my new novel and children's book to Howard Overend, now over ninety years old, in attendance. I confessed that I was one of the “horse book kids” he’d tried so hard to widen the horizons of back in the early 60’s in a small Peace River school. 

Thank you, Mr. Overend for your wonderful book. You are forever at the wheel of Parnassus bringing us treasures in book form, as do all the stalwart and civilized librarians in this land.