As I placed a copy of Grit on the dining room table, my wife Jody exclaimed, “That’s the first newspaper I ever read!”
A friend in California had sent me a copy because there was an article in that particular issue he wanted me to read.
Jody Long was only 9 and in the third grade in Snow Hill, five miles north of the Collin County community of Farmersville, Texas. Farmersville had a small population then. Only 40 miles north east of Dallas it has grown a great deal in recent years.
Snow Hill, by contrast, is now a wide place in the road with a church or two. The school is gone as are the few stores frequented by the former farmers of Snow Hill.
Every two weeks, the traveling library came to Snow Hill, and what caught Jody’s eye was Grit, the weekly newspaper. She wonders today where she got the nickel to pay for it, but she never missed an issue in those formative years. (In their January 10, 1999, issue of Grit, she was given a big write-up with several pictures even.)
Within Grit’s pages, she read stories of a world beyond picking cotton in the summer and walking dusty roads to school the rest of the year. There she caught her first glimpse of a larger America and world.
She worked at the soda fountain in Farmersville through her high school years, and she was the first person in her extended family to attend college.
I am especially glad she was able to attend Howard Payne University in Brownwood, for that is where we met in 1947 and were married in 1950. (My first encounter with her was outside the library in the Old Main building. She was in the library much more than I was - her grades showed it!) Jody added a college degree to her Bible and Grit knowledge to become a wonderful pastor’s wife and later missionary to Taiwan, Hong Kong and the China mainland.
Thanks in no small measure to the traveling library.
I suppose there are still traveling libraries but have not seen any evidence of them. If there are such, they are struggling. Even a city like Philadelphia, Pa., has announced the plan to shutter 11 of its city libraries.
A sign of the times was late in the 20th century when the beautiful Carnegie Libraries were pulled down for more “useful” modern libraries. Many were never replaced. Neighboring Ballinger has one of the few Carnegie Libraries anywhere. The town has been rightly praised for retaining that culture of libraries. (Philanthropist Andrew Carnegie helped build more than 1,700 public libraries in the US between 1881 and 1919.)
Libraries really do matter. This economic downturn is making libraries and their services more valuable than ever. Keeping a community connected and informed.
Libraries have been repositories of wisdom and information since civilization began. Ancient Mesopotamia has thousands of clay tablets that date back 5,000 years. Ancient Egyptian cities reveal papyrus scrolls from 1300-1200 BCE.
The Greeks, later the Persians and Turks, had great libraries which have enhanced our knowledge of them. The monks of the Middle Ages kept the art of storing books until men like Thomas Bray established the first free lending libraries in the American colonies in the late 1600s.
The initial collection of the Library of Congress was burned by the British during the War of 1812. That library was re-born with the gift of Thomas Jefferson’s vast collection of books.
The oldest library in America began with a 400-book donation by a Massachusetts clergyman, John Harvard, to a new university that eventually honored him by adopting his name.
City and county budgets everywhere are already being cut to the bone. Our public officials must not be tempted to trim libraries budgets. They opened the minds of millions of kids. Just ask any librarian or any ordinary young reader, like my own Jody.
Britt Towery writes a column that appears each Friday on the Viewpoints page of the Brownwood Bulletin. Address comments to him firstname.lastname@example.org. Read other columns at www.britt-towery.blogspot.com.