Thursday, July 23, 2015

2015 Summer Library Series: This Library Was Made for You and Me by Liz Rognes

It's a dizzying time of travels this summer here at What She Might Think, from Philadelphia to Washington to Switzerland, and this week, to the rural fields of Iowa.  Please enjoy this week's reflection of growing up in the library by singer, songwriter, and essayist, Liz Rognes.


This Library Was Made for You and Me
Liz Rognes


Picture shows a one-story brick building with two large windows on either side of a door. Windows and door are framed with blue shutters. An American flag flies on a pole in front. Lake Mills Public Library is written over the door in blue block letters.
Lake Mills Library
Summers in Lake Mills, Iowa meant long, hazy, humid days. My mom would drop my siblings and me off at the town pool for morning swimming lessons, two miles away from our farm, and then we would walk a few blocks to my grandma’s house, wrapped in our towels, our skin smelling of chlorine and salty sweat. My Grandma Bea was an Irish Catholic Democrat, the kind who fervently believed in social justice and local participation. She was on the Board of Directors for the public library, and she or my mom would take us every week for story hour or just to check out books. When we were old enough, we could walk by ourselves from Grandma’s house to the library across the street: a small, unassuming building on the outside, but on the inside filled to the brim with books and stories about the big, exciting, incomprehensible world outside of our little Iowa farm town.
I was a kid from a small, fairly conservative town in the middle of the country, but I learned about political history, dissent, revolution, magic, ghosts, outer space, and wild new ways of thinking from books. My favorite books were the ones that sparked controversy, the ones that my teachers sometimes talked about with a spectrum of thinly veiled to explicit disapproval. I remember lying on the musty, familiar carpet of the school library sometime in middle school, reading Go Ask Alice, when a teacher interrupted me to ask if my parents would approve of a “book like that.”
But I had already read lots of books “like that”: a quick perusal of the ALA’s list of most often challenged books in the 1990s reminds me of many of my favorite books as a preteen and teenager: The Handmaid’s Tale; Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret; Catcher in the Rye; Carrie; and so forth. I loved reading books with teen and female protagonists; I could relate to teenage girl angst, and, even though I was a quiet, “good” kid, I felt a tacit, political alignment with the outliers and rebels in the stories I read. My parents encouraged me to read and to read anything; the only censorship I remember from my parents came around the time I developed insomnia as a result of reading a collection of horror stories. The book mysteriously disappeared, a phenomenon I first attributed to a poltergeist, but then I realized that the thief had been my own mother, motivated by the desire to protect me from my own imagination.
As a younger kid, I loved browsing the shelves of the library, looking at the covers and titles and imagining the people and places that lived inside of each compact rectangle. I was a daydreamer and an eager traveler; it took very little for me to be launched into narrative transport: one moment I would be a kid in a sticky swimming suit and the next I would be Nancy Drew, bravely exploring haunted mansions, piecing together a puzzle of clues, and helping the families of the dead. I especially loved series of books; I loved the extended narratives and the way that I could grow up right along with the characters if I caught a series at the right time.

Photo shows a girl reading in a chair. Photo is taken from behind her. She wears yellow tights, a mini skirt, a gray sweater, and her hair is parted down the middle. A toy is in the far background. She is about 12 years old.
"Repose" by Various Brennemans, used under CC license
I would take library books with me everywhere I went. I read at the pool, Grandma’s house, car trips, gym class, and all corners of the farm where I lived. I would sit under a row of evergreen trees, curl up with the dog in the old chicken house-turned dusty storage shed, or I would sprawl out on top of a stack of hay bales in the stables and read while listening to the familiar huffs and stomps of the horses. I loved—and still love—the option to vacate my own life for a while, to disappear into someone else’s story.
My own sense of social justice and local activism has been informed by my love for reading, by developing empathy and understanding through narrative. Public libraries have played a big role in this development, and I am thankful that my parents and my grandma were such supporters of our local library and supporters of access to a variety of books.
Four years ago, I fell in love with a public librarian—not because of his librarianship, but because of his big heart, his patience, his creativity and sense of humor, his intellect: all things that make him a wonderful librarian, too. We have a one-year old son who already loves the library. Our son loves being around other kids and grown-ups, he loves picking out books and going to story time, and he loves visiting Dada at work. My Grandma Bea didn’t live to meet my partner or my son, but our little family carries on her love for libraries, knowledge, and local participation.

Picture shows a woman standing to the right of a barn door holding a guitar in her right hand and wearing a fedora hat and a white summer dress.
Liz Rognes,
Photo Used with Author's Permission
Liz Rognes is a writer and folk musician who lives in Spokane with her partner Jason and their son Nelson. She performs widely, from Washington to Minnesota, and teaches at Eastern Washington University.  Her newest album is Topographies. She's also a contributing blogger for the Emily Program. For more information about Liz, and to listen to samples of her music, please visit her website