April 22, 2020

It’s All About Continuity — A National Library Week Visit from Dudley Carlson

By Stuart Mitchner

Find Your Place at the Library,” the theme for National Library Week, April 19-25, was chosen before the pandemic forced most libraries to temporarily close their doors. The American Library Association’s animated lighthouse logo cleverly puts the in-home alternative “Find the Library at Your Place” simultaneously in play through the flashing of the lighthouse beacon. With each flash of the beam, the silhouette of a sailboat appears headed toward the lighthouse while a library user can be seen in a tiny window near the top of the tower.

That little sailboat flashes me back to third grade and the library activity in which the number of books you read was indicated by the progress of your miniature ship or car or train or fire engine on a large prominently displayed chart. For me the most evocative image in the ALA logo isn’t the lighthouse, it’s the sailboat. Before you’re aware of such things as symbols and metaphors, you’re already playing the game; with each book you finish, the ship with your name on it moves closer to the goal. While the idea may have been to put a competitive charge into reading, what happened in my case was a merging of reading, identity, and motion: the more you read the farther you travel, guided, in effect, by that lighthouse beacon. It was more about going places than finding a place in the library or finishing more books than anyone else.

School Bus Luck

It’s not easy to visualize the particular librarian who witnessed my progress on the vehicular reading chart, perhaps because for the first three grades I lived within walking distance of both the school and the library. Fourth grade was a new world. Instead of walking through a neighborhood I knew almost as well as I did my own home, I began every weekday morning on a misty, twisty, circuitous, fascinatingly unfathomable school bus ride to and from Poplar Grove, a two-room schoolhouse in the country. No more library, no more librarians, and no indoor toilets. I suppose you could call the bald, grizzled, grumpy driver of that daily storybook bus ride a sort of substitute librarian, except that he rarely said a word and seemed to take a grim pleasure in the screaming sound the bus made when he downshifted or hit the brakes. It seemed that the only librarian presence I could count on was a teacher with an excellent reading voice and a kindly manner who read out loud to us from Little House on the Prairie on snowy winter afternoons when the howling of the wind in the book coincided with sound of the wind outside and it seemed that we were in the book, that life and make-believe had become one element.

It’s Bookmobile Day

The closest thing to an actual, card-carrying librarian arrived every other week in the form of Bloomington’s Monroe County Library bookmobile, and since the ALA has declared today, Wednesday, April 22, Bookmobile Day, I’ve been looking at the photo gallery and video of bookmobile history on the library’s website. The librarian’s name was Lois and according to the video’s voiceover, she began in 1929 when the bookmobile was a Ford Model A truck “capable of crossing the swollen creeks and muddy roads of the then much more rural Monroe County.” She’s said to have visited 72 schools every five weeks, loaning out as many as 5000 books each month until she retired in 1967.

There’s a photo from 1948 showing the middle-aged woman I remember standing beside her library on wheels, both sides open, book-filled shelves in view, kids flocking around, and a glimpse of a red-brick facade in the background resembling Poplar Grove. If my favored daydream in those days was making off with the school bus and driving all over the U.S.A. having adventures, one of my alternate choices was driving a bookmobile for a living. The book/motion/occupation equation played out in the sixties when I drove a textbook-laden company car as a publisher’s college traveler, my route ranging from New Orleans to Fargo, Kansas to Kentucky. Flash forward to the millennium and I’m driving a Honda CRV teeming with books all over Princeton and points east and west picking up and transporting donations for the annual Friends of the Princeton Library Sale.

Just saying those words Friends and Books brings me to the person whose email actually inadvertently set this column in motion even before I realized it was National Library Week.

Hello from Dudley Carlson

When I close my eyes trying to picture the “librarian presence” of the fourth grade teacher with the excellent reading voice and the kindly manner, I keep seeing the smiling face of Princeton’s legendary children’s librarian Dudley Carlson. I don’t use the word “legendary” lightly. According to the text of the 2011 Association for Library Service to Children’s (ALSC) Distinguished Service Award, “during the 25 years she worked for the Princeton Public Library (1973-1998), she enriched the lives of thousands of local children by connecting them with books and instilling in them a love of reading. Her outstanding service to the families of Princeton and the people of New Jersey earned her a 1991 Governor’s Award, and the Albert Einstein Education Award, from the New Jersey Congress of Parents and Teachers.”

That Dudley is still all about connecting us with books is apparent in an April 9 email from Portola, California, that begins “Greetings from the past.” Both books she recommends are, as she puts it, “filtered through the lens of a busy life in California” during “the time of coronavirus.”

Of David Quammen’s 2012 book Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic (“a riveting history of recent epidemic and pandemic infections, referencing great plagues but focusing on the 20th and 21st centuries”), she says, “I’m a slow reader and am only halfway through, but it has kept me sane between bouts of hand-washing, disinfecting groceries and packages, adapting to shortages, meeting via Zoom, and taking walks with my husband while keeping careful distance from anyone else. If you’re looking for a prescient book that we all should have read and recommended to our elected officials in 2012 and every year since, this is it.”

At the opposite extreme, but more familiar to parents and children who knew her, is “a little book” she’s been sending to “kids of all ages” in her family: All Alone (1981) by Kevin Henke, “a perfect book for this time of separation and, for many, boredom: a challenge to look around and within and to discover.” When she noted that Henke was this year’s recipient of the ALSC Children’s Literature Legacy Award (formerly the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award) for his lifetime contributions to children’s literature, I thought again of my fourth grade teacher reading Little House on the Prairie to the classroom on snowy winter afternoons.

Local Color

Describing her post-retirement adjustment to northern California, Dudley writes, “Even the chickadees here are a different species from those in the east, and I think of the seasons as reversed. In our Bay Area neighborhood, the grass begins to green up in December and grows greener until May, when it browns off and remains brown (or ‘golden,’ as the natives have it) until the rains return in late fall.

“So, feeling as if I were going back to kindergarten and starting over, I began learning about this environment (my dad was a biologist) and about emergency preparedness (we live, literally, 500 feet from the San Andreas Fault). Birding, which was always an interest, has become a passion, and preparedness morphed into wildfire understanding and defense. And though I’ve followed children’s books with interest (they’re still my only gift to new babies and children among friends and family), support local libraries and have done bits of volunteer work involving both, my library connection is slender to nonexistent except as a user.”

Of course there’s no such thing as a “slender to nonexistent library connection” between Princeton and Dudley Carlson. It’s all about continuity, and so in a follow-up email she writes that she neglected to say “what a great storyteller” David Quammen is. “One reason I enjoy all of his work is that he weaves together the threads of any story — birds, disease, whatever — in a way that is satisfyingly literary and, though scientifically reliable, also highly approachable. He talks to excellent sources and makes them characters in the stories he tells, and the reader learns while experiencing the ‘thrill of the chase.’ I hope you’ll enjoy it when there’s time — if ever there’s spare time again!”