Monday, August 20, 2018

2018 Summer Library Series: The Bartholomew County Library by Melissa Stephenson

Welcome back to the 2018 Summer Library Series. All summer writers share childhood memories of the library. This week, writer Melissa Stephenson takes us into the Indiana library she and her brother grew up in, and found herself in again, in memory. Please enjoy this week's library reflection.


The Bartholomew County Library

Melissa Stephenson

Melissa, Mother, and Brother
When I think of my childhood library in Columbus, Indiana, I think about the building more than the books. Our county library was built in the late 60s, in a town known for its mid-century architecture, not long before my brother and I were born in the 70s.

Our young mother took my brother and me to the library at least once a week. I had a habit of knocking on the hollow metal sculpture in front of the library when we arrived. I’d listen to the sound reverberate through what I thought was a cast of a giant dinosaur bone. As an adult, I learned the twenty-foot piece was made of copper, created by Henry Moore (a well-known English artist), and installed in ’71—the year my brother was born.

The Bartholomew County Library
I can’t imagine how many bricks they used making that library, but I did wonder. It was solid brick, from the walls to the driveway and sidewalks and stairs, which gave it a feeling of security and strength. In his teen years, my brother skateboarded up and down its many brick ramps, curbs, and ledges. Nothing bad would happen at the library. A tornado could not rustle the pages of a single book. 

The inside had concrete ceilings, which, as I write this, sounds impossible. The concrete was poured in a grid, like a gray checkerboard suspended two stories high, with lights in the recessed spaces. I loved the feeling of weight and light above me. It’s a feeling that has marked my life—how we are all delicately suspended, flying, until we’re not. 

The children’s section had a play area, and skylights over the short book stacks. Though I didn’t realize it then, when I returned as a mother with my own children, the toilets and sinks were child-sized as well—the same ones I’d used as a kid. 

The Stephenson Family in the 1970s
I could tell you about all the picture books I took home, brought back, and checked out again, my name filling up the card in the front. I could tell you how I worked my way through every Judy Blume, or how Watership Down so frightened me that I avoided the shelf where it lived once I’d returned it.

But what I want to tell you about is the Red Room. That’s where story time happened, an event we went to together—my mother, brother, and me—from the time I was an infant. The Red Room had solid brick walls, no windows, a low-hung version of that concrete ceiling, and deep red carpet rolling over the stairs where we sat as a librarian read to us. I crawled on those stairs. I sat on those stairs. That room calmed me. I did not look forward or backward but hung on the librarian’s words and rested in the still spots in between. 

Years later, when I was twenty-five and my brother twenty-nine, I visited a funeral parlor near Athens, Georgia to say goodbye to his body, which sat, unprepared, on a stretcher at the far end of a large, windowless room. Unable to look up at first, I stared at the ground, trying to remember how to breathe. What caught my attention was the carpet: the same scarlet hue as the floor of the Red Room. It’s a detail that held the potential to be salt in a wound but to me, in that moment, felt like reprieve. Grace. Like the Universe reminding me of the sanctuary inside me where I could hunker down with a stack of books and wait out the storm.


Melissa Stephenson
Today's library writer:

Melissa Stephenson is currently on tour for her new book, Driven, a memoir of cars, childhood, and loss. Her writing has appeared in publications such as BlackbirdThe Rumpus, The Washington Post, ZYZZYVA, and Fourth Genre. Stephenson grew up in Indiana and lives in Missoula, Montana with her two kids. Learn more at her website

Continue enjoying reflections from the Summer Library Series: