Libraries Save More Than Books

libraries save kids,

CC0 Public Domain

Derrell* is a college senior majoring in chemistry. He told me he owed his upcoming college degree, maybe even his existence, to libraries and librarians.

To understand this you need to go back to Derrell’s early childhood. His mother was in the Army serving in Afghanistan. His father was serving a 28 year sentence for what Derrell was told were false charges. Derrell and his younger brother Devon lived with their grandmother. She suffered from heart problems and diabetes. “I never knew her healthy,” Derrell says. “Her legs were always swollen up and it was hard for her to breathe.”

His grandmother had worked at a lunch counter for nearly 40 years, but by the time her two grandsons came to live with her she wasn’t able to work any longer. Derrell remembers his Gran as smart, always ready with an adage or Bible quote. He also remembers how little they had. A can of soup divided between the three of them, with stacks of plain white bread to fill the stomach, was a typical supper. No money for fruit. Definitely no money to go out anywhere, even to share an order of fries.

In the summer Derell’s grandmother walked the boys to the park. They stayed much of the day, eating a packed lunch, then walked back at supper time. In the winter Derrell’s grandmother walked them to the library where they also stayed most of the day. It was warmer there than in their apartment.

His Gran would flip through magazines or doze in a chair. Derrell and his brother would play in the stacks of the adult section until they were chased out by a librarian, then they’d shuffle off to the children’s section. There they sat on low benches, looking at stacks of picture books and watching people go by through the tall windows.

The best part, Derrell says, was a little drink nook where the library offered coffee, tea, and hot chocolate free for patrons. His Gran showed him how to make the best of a cup of hot chocolate. Dump out the packet, add hot water, but don’t stir. Drink it warm, leaving the dark sludge at the bottom. When it’s gone, take the cup to the drinking fountain and fill it partway with cold water. Mix with your finger. That way you get a hot and cold drink out of one packet. Derrell particularly liked the library’s styrofoam cups. They held the heat or the cold, and he liked to bite the rim until the cup looked as if it had been quilted with interwoven designs.

Librarians in the children’s section arranged all sorts of programs. He was ushered into the first one without knowing what the word “program” meant. There a librarian read aloud a book about a dragon, using puppets for the dialogue. One puppet was a dark green dragon with long teeth. There was also a princess in a shiny blue dress and a knight in foil-bright armor. Derrell was so caught up in the story that he didn’t leave when the other kids walked out of the room. He worked up his courage, holding his little brother’s hand, to ask “what happened next?” The librarian looked up from the case where she was packing the puppets. “Their adventure goes on,” she told him. “It’s just too big a story to tell the whole thing now.” Derrell went to bed that night making up all sorts of endings for the story.

Thanks to library programs, Derrell and his brother painted pictures, made dioramas, went to story hour, listened to musicians play, took part in painting a mural, watched a fencing demonstration, and attended nature programs where they were encouraged to touch baby crocodiles and tiny chinchillas. His grandmother’s cold apartment seemed like a way station between time at the library.

But summer came again and his Gran again took them to the park during the day. Derrell missed the library, but Gran said that was for winter. When cold weather returned Gran was too sick to go there with the boys. She trusted Derrell to take his brother on his own. But there were new policies in place. If kids weren’t signed up in advance they couldn’t attend programs. The door to the room where hot chocolate poured into styrofoam cups was locked. Although he tried to sit down and show his brother books, the little boy ran and yelled through the library until they both were asked to leave.

Things didn’t get better for Derrell. His grandmother got sicker and eventually died. His mother reclaimed them but was so ill with PTSD that she wasn’t able to handle them for long. They stayed with different relatives until eventually they were put into foster homes. Those were painful years. Derrell is still coming to terms with them. But he never forgot that sanctuary called the library.

“Gran probably took us to the library because it had free coffee for her and cocoa for us, ” he says. “But it changed my life. Even after I was a foster kid, I went to the library after school and on Saturdays to get away. The library was always the best kind of hideout.”

“My advice is to talk to librarians every time you go. They’re there because they’re into books too,” Derrell says, “and especially if you go a lot and they get to know you, they’ll save books they’re excited for you to read. If I hadn’t hung out at the library I wouldn’t have read books like 47, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, or Somewhere in the Darkness. And I sure wouldn’t have had my mind snapped open by men I wanted to emulate like Uncle Tungsten, Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman, and The Pact.

Derrell  is now 23 years old, finishing up his last year of college classes and also working the late shift at a convenience store. He  says he can’t even smell hot chocolate without the sensation of biting a design into the malleable shape of cup offered for free.

*name changed


Libraries are one of the cornerstones of civilization and libraries continue to help cultures evolve.  

More and more libraries now offer book-like loans on things such as telescopes, tools, musical instruments, and cookware.

Find a toy library near you with USA Toy Library Association listings and find out more via the International Toy Library Association.

Find a MakerSpace library.

Discover 10 Reasons to Be a Library Addict (magic water is involved).

Celebrate Hug Your Librarian Day. Librarians should be celebrated every day, in my book.

9 thoughts on “Libraries Save More Than Books

  1. That’s a hard story to read, but at least there’s a moderately happy ever after… There’s a belief these days that books are a dying breed, that paper is archaic, that we should all be reading on our ‘devices’. To which I say: rubbish. Libraries are places of wonder. One of my best early memories is of the mobile library arriving in the tiny village where I was a very small girl. Clambering up the tall steps, I entered a place where any story was possible. There were rules about how many books a small child was allowed to take out, but some weeks my mother would let me use her card to top up, since I’d always finished my quota long before the library came again. Even the smell of a library can bring back the memory of world opening to my mind. And I *still* prefer a paper book, even if I do love my Kindle…


    • I can almost picture you entering the mobile library. One surely similar to it parks every week in our little township. I maxed my library card out many times, starting in childhood, and at one point (using all the cards in our household) we had almost 300 items checked out because my kids read so much. Love libraries!


  2. And today Derrell and his brother would be playing video games all day.

    Are you still on the library committee?


    Job 37:6 For he saith to the snow, Be thou on the earth; likewise to the small rain, and to the great rain of his strength.



  3. I LOVE this, dear Laura!

    Did you interview the young man, who shares so eloquently his love of libraries? What a story! It makes me think of Roald Dahl’s *Matilda. *And it brings to mind the students I work with at Homework Help, kids from so many different backgrounds and economic situations.

    At Rochester Public Library a program was recently begun that provides food to students who hang out at the library after school until parents can pick them up– often, when the library closes. One of the staff brings into the Homework Help room on Monday and Wednesday evenings a box of sandwiches, chips, cookies, and juice. The kids can take whatever they want, either to take home or take out to the eating area in the hall. After it’s been with us for 45 minutes, we take the box out to the front desk where anyone in the library can avail themselves.

    While I didn’t suffer economically as a kid growing up, I often found ways to put off going home as long as possible. I was involved with a lot of school activities, but my favorite place to go was Lakewood Public Library. I sooooo wish I’d understood then how much a part of my life libraries would become. Makes me verklempt just thinking about them. I may have once mentioned to you how it soothed my soul to put books in order on the shelves at NOL after Charlie died.

    There’s something solid, consistent, caring about libraries, not to mention the fact of their housing inexhaustible resources for *everyone–*something that just takes my breath away. Perhaps I’m romanticizing.

    More in another email…

    Love to you, dear sensitive girl! Amy

    On Wed, Mar 23, 2016 at 11:13 AM, Laura Grace Weldon wrote:

    > Laura Grace Weldon posted: ” Derrell* is a college senior majoring in > chemistry. He told me he owed his upcoming college degree, maybe his very > existence, to excellent libraries and caring librarians. To understand this > we need to go back to Derrell’s early childhood. His moth” >

    Liked by 1 person

    • Several years ago I interviewed the young man I’ve called Derrell here, at the time it was for another article which ended up never being published. (Part of the avalanche of print publications going out of business.) But he stuck in my mind, particularly because I love libraries as much as you do, so I dragged out my notes to write this.

      Libraries have always been a haven for me too. I’m particularly drawn to old-style libraries, the ones with tall shelves packed with books both newly published and those written many generations ago. So many of today’s libraries emphasize an open look and have policies that de-emphasize keeping older books, even classics, in order to keep that open look. I’m glad to hear Rochester Public Library offers snacks, sad to acknowledge the economic conditions that make those snacks an important source of nutrition for kids today.

      I’ve been reading about the callings each of us have within, often evidenced from the time we’re very young. Your love of books was certainly present from an early age. Perhaps a bit of that love was given back to you in the comfort you felt stocking shelves with your old friends, books, in a time of deep sorrow.


  4. Hooray for libraries (and librarians)! I remember how exhilarating it felt to be among all those books when I was growing up as an awkward nerdy country boy. I spend as much time as I could in our library and my summers were blessed by our county bookmobile, a traveling library for country kids.

    Thanks for sharing this poignant story. We can only wonder how many Derrells there are out there.

    Liked by 1 person

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