Patricia McCowan

Writer, reader, walker.

Category: Libraries

Winter Afternoons at the Library

It’s a cold January afternoon, and I’m just back from the library. I went looking for a particular book and, after browsing nearby shelves, came away with that book and two others that looked interesting. Browsing is the best! And there’s something deliciously cozy about leaving the library with a small stack of books on a winter’s afternoon. The anticipation of getting back home to a warm cup of tea and some time spent paging through my reading stash – that’s a feeling that never gets old.

What that feeling reminds me of most are the countless winter afternoons I spent with my daughters when they were small and I needed to find ways to keep them entertained when things got too cold outside. We’d trek to our local library branch (side note: pushing a stroller over snowy, un-shoveled sidewalks is a huge workout!) and spend an hour or so pulling picture books off the shelves, reading some there, setting some aside to take home. It was wonderful to know we had such easy access to a pretty much endless supply of books – all for free! The library made a long winter a little more bearable.

Now my daughters are 20 and 16. The oldest one texted me yesterday from her art-school university library about some research she was doing. The youngest mentioned working over the lunch hour on a project at her high school library. I’d like to think that as they work their way towards their futures, they remember those old, warm feelings that come from spending an hour or two with their mom, surrounded by books.

Time to put the kettle on; I’ve got some library books to explore!

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New Year, New Book

I’m going to go out on a limb here and declare that, for a writer, knowing you have a new book coming out soon is the best way to start the new year. Okay, I suppose the best, best way for a writer to start the new year (or day, or week, or month) is to WRITE. But having a finished book is a very close second-best. As Dorothy Parker said, or wrote, “I hate writing; I love having written.”

So what have I written? Upstaged, for Orca Book Publishers’ Limelights series. Like my first book, Honeycomb, it looks at what it takes for a young person to immerse herself in a particular performing art. Upstaged puts readers front and center in the world of a youth musical theater company. Here’s how Orca’s Spring 2016 catalogue describes the story:

 Ellie is used to getting leading roles in her small-town school’s musicals, but her place at center stage disappears when her dad becomes the host of a breakfast TV show and they have to move to the big city. When Ellie auditions for – and lands – a spot with the Youth Works Theater Company, she comes up against a tight-knit group of talented, experienced and competitive triple-threat performers.

Upstaged officially launches April 12, 2016. I can’t wait – so it’s a good thing I get to sign some pre-release copies of the book at the OLA (Ontario Library Association) Super Conference this month! I’ll be at the Orca booth with my favorite pen on Friday, January 29 at 10:00 am, signing books for librarians. I can’t think of a better way to start the new year.

Libraries I Have Known and (Sometimes) Loved, circa 1970s

My first part-time job as a high school student was at Winnipeg’s Centennial Library. It’s now much expanded and called The Millennium Library. I’m really hoping it becomes The Sesquicentennial Library when Manitoba celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2020, just because it’s fun to say “sesquicentennial.” Try it. See?

Anyway, I had applied to be a page, one of those people who wheel book-laden carts through the stacks to put all the Danielle Steel books back where they belong. I had the whole Dewey Decimal system down cold, and I was always happy amidst books, so I thought the job would be a perfect fit for me.

I got hired, but not to shelve books. I was assigned to the audio-visual department. In the late ’70s, audio-visual – or AV, to be properly nerdy – meant books-on-tape, VHS videos, and vinyl record albums. Vinyl record albums in their square, skinny covers, tightly packed together on row after row of shelves. Instead of sliding novels, biographies, and weight-loss tomes back onto their ample perches, I was wrecking my cuticles wedging albums back into their little slivers of shelf space.

Then there was the wear and tear that happened to those album covers, what with all the jimmying out of or shoving back into the shelves. (Not to mention whatever mistreatment they were subjected to in the various record-borrowers’ backpacks or basement bedrooms!) When the records were at risk of slipping right out of the bottom of their damaged covers, I’d get stuck in the AV section’s tiny office, taping album covers back together with the guy who was super fond of talking about Chick Corea. Some albums were more popular than others, getting borrowed and returned on a weekly basis. These required more taping. I taped up a lot of Hall & Oates in my time at the Centennial. And Fleetwood Mac. Also Queen. Those covers are imprinted on my mind. So. Much. Hair.

When I wasn’t re-shelving or repairing, I was re-winding. Re-winding is now a lost skill, like butter-churning or repairing things. But books-on-tape and videos had to be re-wound, and because pretty much everyone ignored the “Please Rewind” notes affixed to those tapes and videos, it fell to the diligent pages of the AV section to do the rewinding. You’re welcome, people from the ’70s who couldn’t be bothered.

So, as with every good high school job, I learned a lot about human nature working in the AV section of the Winnipeg Centennial Library. We’re tough on the things we love. When we’re finished with something, there is no rewinding. And even if we don’t get exactly the job we want, we can still learn about Chick Corea.

Libraries I Have Known and Loved, circa 1960s

It’s a Winnipeg summer day in the late ’60s and I’ve set off on a walk with my big sister to get my first library card. A card with my name on it. A card that I will be expected to keep un-lost in my bedroom instead of in my mom’s purse. A card that means I’m old enough to pick out any books I want, as long as they’re from the children’s shelves. I’m cool with that.

My sister and I leave sunshine behind and head down the darkened stairs in the strip-mall where our local library branch is located. At the bottom of those stairs, the library is on the left. A bowling alley is on the right. A library and a bowling alley, side-by-side, just the way nature intended, right? Suburban life was like that in the ’60s. Sort of like the way every basement in every bungalow in our neighbourhood came with not only a laundry room, but a bar. (Not that libraries are as boring as laundry rooms!)

Anyway, my sister and I turn left. And once the library door sighs shut behind us, the sound of falling pins is muffled and we are wrapped in the calm hush of the library. Libraries were still hush-hush places back then. No computers. No one yakking on a cell phone. Just the swishing of card catalogue drawers being opened and closed, the squeak of the book-cart wheels announcing the slow but sure restocking of shelves. I stand on the threshold of a life-long friendship. An unforgettable moment.

Except I forget what books I took out. I know, that should be the point. I should remember running my fingers across all those plastic-covered book spines until I came to Anne of Green Gables or Black Beauty or some Trixie Belden mystery. Cue angel chorus! Nope. Instead, I remember the lady librarian’s pencil. It had a little stamp thingy attached to it, so that after she took the card out of the pocket that was glued onto the front page of the book, wrote my name down on that card and filed it away, she could stamp the due-date on the slip of paper that was glued to the pocket that was glued to the front page of the book. (Signing out a book was like a manufacturing process in those days.) The stamp thingy was the best part.

Actually, walking home with my sister, holding those books (whichever ones they were) against my chest so everyone could see I had been to the library was the best part. Until we got home. Then I’m sure the best, best part was sitting on a blanket under our backyard weeping-willow tree and reading those books. Those books I picked out myself. For free. Lots of things have changed since that day, but the power of a library card still thrills me.


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