Monroeville, Alabama is quiet today. The town square looks perfect at dusk. The birds are chirping. The shops are lined in tight rows. The Victory roses are in bloom. Mel’s Dairy Dream is doing steady business.
An occasional muddy Chevy truck cruises down Main Street, windows rolled down, with godawful modern pop-country music blasting, just to remind everyone that, yes, although this sophisticated town is the “Literary Capital of Alabama,” birthplace of “To Kill a Mockingbird” and Truman Capote, local teenagers here, like anywhere else, still play music loud enough to fracture Pittsburgh steel.
Today is the Monroe County Public Library’s 95th anniversary. I am in town to storytell in honor of the occasion. Why they chose me for this gig, I don’t know. I come from people who used books only for fly swatters. I am a dropout with no pedigree. But here I am.
I am standing in this small-town library to honor the American institution of books and all people who hedge their lives around the power of sentences.
You can keep your politicians and your social influencers. Librarians are my heroes.
“I wanted our library to be fun,” says the head librarian. “I wanted kids to feel at home. I remember when I was a kid and librarians were always telling us kids to hush. That’s why we never shush children here.”
The library in this rural county has been in operation since Babe Ruth was hitting homers, movies were silent and the Model A was hot.
Meantime, in 1927, a bunch of do-gooders in Monroe County, Alabama, were deciding to offer literature to all. It was a unique time in America, an era when nearly 5 million U.S. citizens didn’t know how to read their own names. This library was a haven.
Today, this humble library owns the largest collection of books in the county. It’s also a famous place. Nelle Harper Lee and Truman Capote probably had library cards here.
“Two world-famous American authors come from our town,” said one local woman. “And just think, they probably got their starts in this library system, sitting in a circle at storytime.”
This place is still the quintessential sanctuary for children with an inclination toward the printed word. Go inside and you might see a kid covered in freckles, wearing a camouflage hat, browsing a bookshelf of Westerns. Or you might meet a young Black girl, her hair in tight braids, reading Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree” aloud to her little sister.
Before the library moved to its current location, this building was a hotel. Just above the fiction section is the suite where Gregory Peck once stayed while preparing to portray the lead in the film adaptation of “Mockingbird.” They tell me Peck was here to study the authentic South Alabamian accent.
I met an elderly woman who remembers meeting Peck when she was a little girl. I asked what he was like. “Bless him,” she said. “He talked like a Yankee, but he couldn’t help it.”
In my time as a writer, I have written too much about libraries and librarians. I have shamelessly praised the American library system until people are flat sick of the subject. And I don’t blame them.
Still, I can’t help the way I feel. Because, for dropouts like me, libraries were everything. I realize we live in the age of the Internet, and the idea of consulting brick-and-mortar institutions for information is archaic.
But in my boyhood, before the dawn of digital information, there was only one way to access the greatest minds in collective history. And you did that right here. At a library.
As a kid, you biked into town, you walked past the double doors, sweaty, with your Chuck Taylors half untied. You asked the librarian about a particular book. She led you through the aisles, she removed a selection from the shelf. You felt a slight thrill when she handed you the novel of your dreams.
And if you were lucky, she turned a blind eye to the late fees you had been accruing since the birth of Christ.
Eventually, although you weren’t aware of it happening, you went from being an ignorant kid who read slowly, to an ignorant kid who could read nine pages in three minutes. But make no mistake, your new literary talent didn’t just happen by accident. It happened because someone, at some time in history, somewhere in your county, decided that your region needed a library.
So happy 95th birthday to the Monroe County Library, perhaps the greatest and most noble public library in the nation.
Except, of course, for my hometown library. And yours, too.
Sean Dietrich is a columnist and novelist known for his commentary on life in the American South. He has authored nine books and is the creator of the “Sean of the South” blog and podcast. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of 1819 News. To comment, please send an email with your name and contact information to [email protected].
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