The Jackson, Michigan Carnegie Library
When I was growing up in Jackson, the city’s Library was housed in a handsome blockish building downtown on Michigan Avenue. I’m not sure what age I was when I was first taken there and introduced to the wonders of libraries. But there was a certain pleasure walking up the steps into the library and then making my way to the Children’s Department.
The building is one of the Carnegie libraries built in the early 20th century, funded by a grant from Andrew Carnegie. The Scottish businessman funded 1,689 libraries in the United States between the years 1883 and 1929. The Jackson library received a donation of $70,000 in 1901. When it opened in 1906, the building had been given features that graced most of the Carnegie libraries: entryway stairs that were to symbolize the visitor’s rising through learning, and a lamppost at the front to symbolize enlightenment. The other notable thing about the libraries built by Carnegie donations is that most all of them are architecturally unique.
Of course, the child that I was had no awareness of these historical facts. All I knew was that the library was a beautiful building that had wonderful books in it.
On entering the building, straight ahead, you’d find the main reference desk. Enticingly behind the broad counter were library stacks – the adult section that seemed a forbidden kingdom to the child-visitor. On either side of the lobby on the ground floor were the main reading rooms. But the goal for the young me was the Children’s department, which when I was young was upstairs on the west side of the building.
The stairs always held an enchantment over me. This old picture shows plants in it, but in “my day” I don’t think they were there. Instead, I remember sunlight pouring in on the white marble of the stairs and banister. Going up that staircase felt like being in some special palace.
It was in the Children’s department of the Jackson Library where my early fascination with world myths expanded. I had read (children’s versions) of Greek & Roman myths, and Norse myths. But it was a book in this library about Hawaiian/Polynesian myths that introduced me to the goddess Pele. The volcano goddess intrigued me then, and still is one of my favorites. It was also in this wide, high-ceilinged chamber where I found the Mushroom Planet books and began many science fiction adventures.
By the time I reached the junior high grades (what are now called “middle school”), I had become more familiar with other areas of the city library. I remember checking out books on handwriting analysis from the “adult” section. There was also the ground floor west reading room, where periodicals were kept. I recall one social studies project where the students were encouraged to include images. This was back in the dark ages, before everyone had a copier/printer in their home. The library’s photocopying machine (an early public model) would provide you with a negative image for twenty-five cents. As I remember, some students just went with the negative image for their reports. I, however, coughed up another twenty-five cents to get the positive image (by photocopying the negative image). Life was hard, working with “bearskins and stone knives.”
The Hunt Junior High School Library
There was another library that affected me in an important way when I was growing up in Jackson. That was the library at Hunt Junior High.
Although the building has now been converted to an elementary school, it was built as a junior high school. A very modern design of individual buildings on the hillside, joined by enclosed walkways. The library was situated to the right of the entry lobby. It actually had a pretty good selection of books for a school library.
This photo of the current staff of the school’s library shows the room looking much as I remember it. It was significant to me for a specific treasure I found on those shelves along the wall to the left. The fiction books were arranged there, alphabetically by author. I remember one day strolling along the shelves, idly looking for something interesting to read. My attention was caught by the title of one rather large book. Something Wicked This Way Comes. I was already familiar with some of Shakespeare and knew that the line came from Macbeth. I checked it out, and fell in love with the lyrical prose of one Ray Bradbury. I think it was my first encounter with Bradbury’s work. His prose would have a profound effect on my own writing, though I would not be aware of that for many, many years.
Libraries have the ability to enrich our lives. And these two libraries in Jackson were just the beginning for me.
(My thanks to librarians Elizabeth Breed and Debby Sears for their help in finding interior images of the Carnegie Building of the Jackson District Library.)