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Little Spouse On The Prairie: Read It And Weep

Valerie Brown-Kuchera

I’ve been thinking about libraries. Even some of the tiniest of towns on the high plains have them. Those libraries may be located in back rooms of city offices, converted church basements, defunct stores, or even former homes. No matter how humble the venue, these places can serve a variety of community purposes.

Far from being outmoded by modern technology, public libraries are actually broadening their scope. Libraries provide meeting spaces, crafting areas, exercise rooms, technology hubs, robotics club memberships, cooking classes, and essential oils demonstrations. I’ve hosted baby showers at my library. A friend of mine got married in hers. I know from experience that a person can still check out books, too!

When I was a rural kid, growing up on a farm, my family did not own a television. Everything I knew about the outside world came from books. We had a surprising number of them lying around our farmhouse. The books weren’t there because my family members were exceptionally academic. 

No, the books were there because my grandfather, who was something of a hoarder, had purchased them at a school auction (maybe I inherited my love of buying other people’s castoff junk from him). Grandpa had bought the school’s entire library of novels, encyclopedias, atlases, nonfiction, textbooks -- the works.   These books were stacked in boxes, floor to ceiling, in our unheated upstairs bedrooms. I spent a good deal of my early childhood in those rooms, paging through the tomes. Without TV, cell phones, iPads, or video games, a person can plow through a phenomenal number of books!

Despite the quantity of books in my home, I still considered it a huge treat to visit a “real” library in a nearby small community. My younger sister and I would ride along when our mom drove to get groceries -- usually every couple of weeks -- and she would drop us off while she shopped. Not only did we feel excited by the prospect of fresh reads, but we also got a little thrill at being left without parental supervision for a short time. 

One of the coolest things about checking out books back then was looking at the little card tucked in the manila-colored pocket inside the covers. Perhaps a novel I picked out had been read by a much older, cooler girl. Her signature on the card might be loopy and sophisticated, and I would imitate her fancy handwriting with the hearts dotting the Is.

Maybe a boy I liked had read something on my pile. Now if that didn’t give a prepubescent girl a buzz of excitement, I don’t know what did. Forget Snapchatting and Instagramming; checking out the same book that my eighth-grade crush had read six months earlier sent me over the moon.

With digital library checkouts, we can no longer tell who has read the books we take out of the library. People must rely on their imaginations, which seem to be diminishing at the same rate as the great glaciers. Soon, there will be no one left who once examined names on a card before checking out a book, motivated to find one that had been read by a crush, or an older, admired student.

Gone are the days of knowing with certainty who has pretty handwriting based upon a signature on a small, blue-lined card.  The young child no longer painstakingly signs the card, proud to be reading such a big book. Furtive teens don’t have to feel a moment of shame when they check out a racy volume, knowing their names are forever immortalized on that telling, white card.

Despite the ubiquity of internet sources, I still order a sizable portion of the texts I need for teaching and learning each semester through interlibrary loan. There’s something about the page that makes things stick. I know I’m not the only one who finds details by remembering, “That fact was on the lower left corner of a page about a third of the way through. The heading was in orange. Ah, yes! There it is.”

Shout out to all the small public libraries of the high plains! Thanks for connecting us with one another in so many ways!

Libraries are changing, and my nostalgic self longs for a quiet place to read and a moment of liberation from the fast-paced world we live in. Nevertheless, libraries are still hanging strong.

Host of Little Spouse on the Prairie, a regional comedy feature that airs Sundays at 8:35 a.m. during Weekend Edition.