By Beth Kephart
I was a kid and it was a holiday weekend when I boarded a backyard swing, pumped high and ever higher, and heard a rusty chain snap. I'd been singing "Kumbaya," the old spiritual. I went silent for those microseconds of unintended flight. I hit the ground with a thud, shattering the bones in my left wrist. And everything changed after that.
I'd wear a sweaty, hard cast to my shoulder for many months. I'd wear a cast to my elbow and then an array of removable splints until I was 16 and my bones were fully grown and the doctors could finally operate. A life that had seemed destined for kickball games and interactive sports was suddenly quieted. No more regular gym class, with that thing on my wrist. Sometimes, even, no recess. The library became my sudden domain - the shelter that took me in.
I became, in time, a proud library aide - stamping return dates onto manila cards and slipping them into the glued-on sleeves in the backs of books; loading new catalog cards into wooden drawers; learning the Dewey decimals and a few handy reshelving tricks. I even stopped, along the way, to read some books, to discover all the secret stuff in backroom boxes and filing cabinets. One-of-a-kind things, it dawned on me. Treasures.
I took my library skills to the University of Pennsylvania, where I worked the checkout and return desk with a certain gusto and took refuge in the carrels and learned how to find the oddball stuff I needed to write two undergraduate theses. I took my well-earned love of libraries everywhere after that.
Each job I took - in architecture firms, in consulting operations, as a curiously brave entrepreneur - sent me back to the stacks and cool archival corners, to the microfiche and microfilm, to old newspapers that crackled with history. Every book I wrote - memoir or fable, young adult novel or Handling the Truth - carried me back, and back.
It was at Radnor Memorial Library that I found the old stories about Wayne that became integral to the writing of Ghosts in the Garden. It was at the Free Library of Philadelphia that I located, first, the river artifacts that wove their way into Flow: The Life and Times of Philadelphia's Schuylkill River, and, next, the original stuff (the tickets, the diaries, the menus, the hotel listings, the playbills) of the Centennial Exposition that lay at the heart of my novel Dangerous Neighbors.
It was in the Historical Society of Pennsylvania library that I came upon the trolley fares and street names and taverns and classified ads and maps with which my 1871 novel, Dr. Radway's Sarsaparilla Resolvent, was built. It was in the belly of the Drexel University library that I found boxes, never before explored, that deeply revealed George W. Childs, my favorite Philadelphian. And it was back at Van Pelt Library at Penn that I found an old report on the Philadelphia State Hospital at Byberry that allowed me to finish my Byberry-infused novel, You Are My Only, and, later, discovered obscure publications about life in East Germany that enriched my Berlin Wall novel, Going Over.
It's simple: My life, my work, my books would not have been possible without libraries. (Indeed, I'm so indebted to the institution that I made a key character in a young adult novel called Nothing But Ghosts a librarian of the fashionista sort.) But I am not, of course, the only one who feels like this. Ask most any author or illustrator to tell you a library story, and he or she will. You will hear about treasures.
Today, thanks to Speak Up for Libraries, a PA Forward | Pennsylvania Libraries initiative, a statewide campaign long in the making, I and fellow Pennsylvania authors and illustrators will be out telling our library tales. Paired with both school and public libraries, we'll be talking not just about the stories libraries helped us build, but about the ways in which libraries are powering the future with their deep resources, their overt caring, and their commitment to staying abreast of technical advances and possibilities.
Go to a library today and you'll find people searching through job banks, asking questions about taxes, getting help with their health, gleaning insights on life itself, and taking home a new book or two to read. Go to a library and you'll find children listening to a book read aloud, teens gathering to do homework, mentors sitting with their mentees, and librarians pointing the way.
Go to a library and you'll find community, and isn't that what we must safeguard most of all? I'll be a proud speaker at Downingtown High School West today. But I'll be even prouder knowing that I'm one small part of a well-considered and widely embraced drive designed to remind us all of the countless ways that libraries are there when we need them.