Skunks, Pack Horse Librarians, and Emergency Rooms for the Mind

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July 4, 2017 by libroshombre


There’s a set of values held in common by public librarians everywhere: a love of books and belief in the therapeutic power of reading, sharing information in all its forms and perspectives, and enjoying lives of public service. Sylvia Lawler runs the public library in Junction, Texas, where Fairbanksans Ron Smith and Marsha Knobel spend their winters, and they occasionally share my library columns with Ms. Lawler, who also writes a regular newspaper column for the Junction Eagle. She recently cited one of my columns written last winter that mentioned a company selling candles scented like books, libraries, and bookstores.

“Last week we cold have used a few of those book-related candles because we had the aroma of that well-known “kitty” – skunk – in the library. The varmint was somewhere under the library. He stayed around until I threw mothballs into the outside crawl spaces. Now the library has the pungent smell of a mixture of skunk and mothballs.” Sometimes I’ll have to tell her about the time we evacuated Noel Wien Library when a couple of guys took off their bunny boots. I’d take the skunk.

Based on my unannounced visit a year ago, the Junction Library is the epitome of the finely-honed small-town institution that’s a cultural well-spring for its community thanks to committed, generous, and big-hearted librarians and volunteers. Their values are identical to most librarians everywhere, but many others have the same values and provide similar services. A letter to the editor by Byron Kozevnikoff, the prisoner acting as law librarian at the Fairbanks Correctional Center said, “This letter is for everyone I am incarcerated with. Buy a set of earplugs and learn to love to read … Learning to love to read will not only increase your intelligence, but it will also bring you a sense of peace.”

Historian Barbara Tuchman expressed the same sentiments in another way. “Book are the carriers of civilization. Without books, history is silent, literature dumb, science crippled, thought and speculation at a standstill. Without books, the

development of civilization would have been impossible. They are engines of change (as the poet said), windows on the world, and lighthouses erected in the sea of time. They are companions, teachers, magicians, bankers of the treasures of the mind. Books are humanity in print.”

So consider another librarian-at-heart, a Jordanian bookseller named Hamzeh AlMaaytah, “one of Amman’s most dedicated bookshop owners, and certainly its most eccentric. An article from last April described how Hamzeh “reveres the written word. In response to text messages or Facebook posts he will send back a picture of his handwritten answer … Hamze describes his work as a calling. ‘”I run an emergency room for the mind’ … he wants to ensure there is always a place in Jordan where one can access the healing power of books, no matter the hour or the price.”

That’s right, Hamzeh’s shop is open 24/7, “all his prices are negotiable, and he has both a generous loan policy and a robust book exchange program, where patrons can swap anybook they bring in for one in the store.” His business, Al-maa Bookstore, is located next to an ancient public water fountain. “Al-mah” means water, “and like the once public fountain, Hamzeh wants his books to be as accessible as water.” The man’s a saint.

So are the Pack Horse Library Project of Eastern Kentucky, a New Deal program that ran in the Thirties and Forties. It was staffed by formidable women librarians who established library services for remote communities, schools and farms by delivering books, magazines and other information on horseback. “They often began their day by loading up books before dawn and would return just before dusk,” an article said. “They were paid $28 a month and worked in both winter and summer.”

The horseback librarians rode over 350 miles a month over mountainous terrain and reached over 100,000 rural Kentucky residents. Comapre that with a recent Sports Illustrated sidebar that compared how far athletes in various sports run during their contests. Soccer player’s top the list at seven miles a game. Tennis pros run three miles in a full match, and basketball players cover two-and-a-half miles. Reference librarians often put in around that in a shift, while football receivers and defensive backs run only one-and-a-quarter mile, and baseball players a mere quarter-mile.




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