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July 29, 2010

STAWAR: Summer sanctuary: A really cool place

> SOUTHERN INDIANA — These unbearably hot days remind me of the times before central air conditioning when there would be a picture on the newspaper’s front page of a boy frying an egg on the sidewalk.

Older folks would disapprove, saying, “People in Europe are starving.” Of course, by the early 1960s, people in Europe were not starving, they were eating chocolate croissants.

This was also the time of the year when my father would take some vacation days and that usually meant he had planned some horrendous home improvement project, like reshingling the garage or pouring a new set of concrete steps for our basement.

Seeking refuge from the heat, humidity and my father, I eventually discovered an oasis of air-conditioned hospitality only two blocks from my house. I was not one to hang out at the baseball field, basketball courts or any other venues that involved sweating.

My asylum was the local public library. It was cool, the chairs were comfortable and there were tons of books and newspapers to read. I would park my bicycle in the back, so my father wouldn’t see it, if he happened to drive by on the way to the hardware store or lumber yard.

Before I discovered the public library, I mostly used the library at school, where I had developed a reputation for returning books late and occasionally abusing them. In the third grade, the school librarian had complained to my teacher about some alleged grape jelly I had smeared in a book, resulting in several sticky pages, as well as a few that were permanently glued together. Can I help it if I like to read while I eat breakfast?

My teacher was unamused and publicly berated me, much to the delight of my class. A few months later, after the “Grape Jelly Incident” had died down, I was giving a book report about a girl named Janet. I told the class about all the adventurous things Janet had done. The teacher seemed satisfied and she asked if anyone had any questions. That’s when my supposed best friend raised his hand and said, “I have a question (dramatic pause) Just how much jelly did you feed this one, Terry?”

When I was in junior high school, they finally allowed me into the adult book section. Ever since then, I have considered libraries to be special places. They have always felt familiar and comfortable to me.

There are more libraries than McDonald’s restaurants and according to a Harris poll, 62 percent of Americans have library cards. When school, public and academic libraries are all considered, people visit libraries three times more often than they go to the movies.

Every few years, we hear alarming news about the decline of reading in America. According to Newsweek, there has been a 12 percent reduction in daily newspapers over the last decade. However, in the same period, the number of books published annually went from about 280,000 to well more than a million.

Libraries are closely tied to the American dream. According to the Library Association, 96 percent of Americans believe that public libraries play a significant role in giving everyone a chance to succeed. Books, reading and literacy are so important that a former governor of Indiana once said that determining the number of new prisons to build is based, in part, on the number of second-graders not reading at grade level.

In today’s economy, libraries are especially crucial, since many people use the free Internet access and other resources to look for jobs.

Libraries have frequently been depicted as sanctuaries for children in films and books. In the film “Pagemaster,” 10-year-old Richard fears almost everything and lives a miserable existence, filled with constant calculations of gruesome probabilities. Caught in a thunderstorm, he takes shelter in a library, where Mr. Dewey fixes him up with a library card, as well as the life changing experiences he desperately needs. Precocious 5-year-old Matilda Wormwood seeks refuge from her obnoxious and neglectful family in a library in the 1996 film “Matilda,” based on Roald Dahl’s novel.

My wife, Diane, thinks that I romanticize libraries, like the movies sometimes do. As a child, she also haunted her local library, which did open up many new horizons for her. However, her memories aren’t as positive as mine.  

Libraries have generally been geared toward youth. Most of our local ones are now participating in summer reading programs like “Make a Splash @ Your Library,” “Junie B. Jones” and “Fancy Nancy” tea parties, “Mother Goose on the Loose” and children’s story hours are alive and well.

The public library we took our kids to, back in Florida, acted out stories using puppets. One of the staff had this terrific witch’s laugh that always scared the bejesus out of our son and gave me nightmares as well.

If you check out the websites below, you can see the wide range of activities being offered at our community libraries this summer. I was especially impressed by the Charlestown-Clark County Public Library site, where they publish kid’s book reviews. Children can be so unrelentingly positive. They like everything and are enthusiastic to a fault.

For example, some of the comments made include: “It was a really good book. I’ve read it twice!!!!!!!!!,” “the best comic book ever written!!!!!!!!!!!!!.” “This book was awesome! and [in regard to The Cat in the Hat] “ It was so so so so so funny.”

So to beat the heat, find an “awesome” book and maybe even learn something, consider your local library this summer. Just remember to go easy on the grape jelly, unless you don’t mind being teased.

• Charleston-Clark County Public Library — www.clarkco.lib.in.us/

• Jeffersonville Township Public Library — jefferson.lib.in.us/

• New Albany-Floyd County Public Library — www.nafclibrary.org/

• Louisville Free Public Library — www.lfpl.org/

Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D., lives in Georgetown and is the CEO of LifeSpring, the mental health center in Jeffersonville. He can be reached at tstawar@lifespr.com. Check out his Welcome to Planet-Terry blog and podcast link at http://planetterry.wordpress.com

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