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In the company of my book friends

 

By Edna Froese

05/31/2017

This is an exterior front view of the Saskatoon Public Library building on 23rd Street, opposite City Hall circa 1945-55. A wide staircase, sheltered by white portico and pillars, formally welcomed passersby into the building which served Saskatonians as their "main library" from 1928 to 1965. The Bessborough Hotel can be seen in the background to the left. Photo: Image A-1167; A-1168 courtesy of Saskatoon Public Library - Local History.

In the midst of the recent brouhaha concerning provincial funding for libraries, I visited the Frances Morrison Library in downtown Saskatoon to return a video, ordinarily a routine errand. Now it felt like a pilgrimage — and a privilege. In memory of my long history with this library, I chose to linger.

I was just a farm girl when my mother bought me a big-city library card that changed my life. Each week I climbed the huge stone staircase, pulled open the heavy old doors, then scampered up the stairs to the children’s department. There, waiting for me, was my sanctuary. Near the back of the room was a story corner: small benches, low book shelves filled with picture books and occasional stuffed animals, a box of alphabet blocks, large windows overlooking the alley (not lovely, but abundant natural lighting warmed the whole room). I didn’t care that I was too big for the benches. It was a secluded corner. While my parents did their shopping and other errands, I could read undisturbed for hours.

No teasing schoolmates here to mock me. No one to call me to do tedious chores or rebuke me for some failure of duty. It was the safest place I knew. I could slip into other worlds, keep company with animals, make friends with book children from other cultures. I could be someone else entirely — until heavy bongs from the City Hall clock announced the end of my freedom. Still, I could take an armload of books with me to devour (with delicious popcorn) on a Sunday afternoon or to read secretly when I should have been doing homework.

Eventually I promoted myself to the young adult section on the main floor. I loved that front room, with its tall windows and comfy big chairs. Love, death, jobs, art, beauty, travel — teenage protagonists guided me through it all. On days when I felt truly daring, I wandered into the adult stacks, and discovered Thomas Hardy (I could wallow in bleakness without having to own it), shelves full of photography books that showed me the art of seeing, and sex education books I’d never have found in our small school library.

In the midst of the lonely unhappiness of my teen years, that blessed, beautiful library offered me a safe place, where I could make friends with books and learn to love their authors. This was an egalitarian world without snobbishness or bullying. Ignorance and naiveté mattered nothing because I could choose what and how much information to absorb.

By the time I became a wife and then a mother, the beloved old brick building had been replaced by the current Frances Morrison Library, where I regularly took our three sons for story time in Pooh Corner, using my brief freedom to browse the shelves for as many books as our four library cards would permit us to sign out. By now I knew also that librarians are as essential as books — we had many happy conversations about favourite books and special reading places.

Before those years, though, the Murray Library at the U of S had become my chief sanctuary; it still is that. So many long hours I spent in tiny carrels in the literature section. Just being near the long stacks was comforting. In the light of the slanting winter sun, during some of the most difficult emotional struggles of my life, I wrote love letters, diary entries, essays, and I read novels, poetry, philosophy, history. It’s not a surprise my automatic response to seasons of despondency is to seek the company of my book friends.

And I have had the pleasure of building my own library, beginning with two six-foot planks held up by bricks, in a tiny one-bedroom apartment, back in my undergraduate days. How I envied my professors with their elegant, book-stuffed offices. Thanks to second-hand book stores and sales, those two shelves and a few bricks have given way to expansive bookcases in almost every room of our house. In whatever bedroom I have ever slept, I wanted a book case nearby; failing that, I piled books on the floor beside the bed.

When I returned to the university to earn another degree and then to teach, whatever cubbyhole I was granted for an office quickly became my home by virtue of the books I gathered around me. Publishers supply free textbooks, and conferences have book tables, with discounts. Eventually, in my office in St. Thomas More College, I was surrounded by books that I had long loved, that I hoped to read, that I bought to give away to students.

On that day in the Frances Morrison library, as I sat in the sun, remembering, I overheard a heart-warming conversation. A patient librarian was helping an elderly gentleman with his iPod, how to borrow e-books, learn about library events, and search the Internet safely. She listened to his stories and smiled at his jests. Libraries are still a safe place in which to learn, to escape, to enter other worlds, and to know oneself as part of the company of friends: people friends and book friends.

Froese taught English literature at St. Thomas More College in Saskatoon for many years until her retirement. She currently works part time as academic editor while relishing the freedom to read and write for pleasure.