The Public Library Comes Into My Life


My love affair with books and libraries began in the year 1925. In May of that year, the Cleveland Public Library opened its brand new Main Library Building at the corner of East Third and Superior Avenue. I had heard about it for weeks before its opening from my school teachers, who from their reading of the newspapers and brochures advertising the public opening described it as a veritable treasure house. My appetite for reading and books had been aroused by Mrs. Benson who not only read to us but asked those of us who liked to read, to read aloud portions of books from time to time. I can recall Mrs. Benson telling us time after time how important it was to learn to read well and that books were the only real way to a good education. As a result of Mrs. Benson's enthusiasm and the good personal press that she gave the coming opening of the New Main Library, I was champing at the bit, so much so that by the time the day of the opening arrived I could hardly contain myself.

So it was that on a spring day, after school, instead of going straight home, I decided to go to the New Main Library. It was a good fifteen minute walk from the school. I had been told that the quickest way to get there was to walk down Eagle Street to Sheriff Street, then to East Fourth Street, that I would have to cross Prospect Avenue, Euclid Avenue to the Old Arcade, and that I should walk through the Arcade to its Superior Avenue exit, and that the Main Library would be right across the street on the north side of Superior Avenue.




The Old Arcade looking toward the Superior Avenue exit circa 1904.
Courtesy of the Prints & Photographs Division of the Library of Congress




I followed the directions carefully. As I walked, my anticipation grew with each step, all the time wondering what I would find and see when I got there. I began to imagine what it would be like to look at miles and miles of book shelves instead of the very small number of book shelves that I was used to in our school library. Mrs. Benson had told us that the New Main Library had been advertised as having miles of book shelves!

When I came out of the Old Arcade at the Superior Avenue side, there stood before me the most beautiful sight that my young already myopic eyes had ever seen. By this time in my life my teachers had started to tell me that they thought I needed eye glasses because I was beginning to have difficulty seeing the blackboard from the back rows of the classroom and had to be assigned a seat up in front of the room. In my youthful vanity, I had resisted taking their advice and had conveniently forgotten to tell my parents of my need for glasses.

As I looked upon the shiny, brand new building, gleaming in the bright afternoon sun, with its pure white stone, it almost blinded my poor little short-sighted eyes. I hurried across the street and hurtled myself up the front steps, pushed my way eagerly through the revolving door so that it spun around and around several times after my entry. The marble floors and walls; the beautifully decorated ceiling of the lobby from which hung the largest lighted globe of the world that I had ever seen in my short life time, dazzled me.




The lobby and the halls leading to the reading rooms on the first floor were decorated with gay banners and balloons of every color, more that I had ever seen in one place before! There were a lot of pretty ladies dressed in elegant, glorious looking dresses, the like of which I had not seen before. One of them came to me and said, "Young man, I'll bet that you are looking for the Lewis Carroll Room. That is where we have the kinds of books that you would like!" She guided me onto the elevator and told me to get off on the third floor and that if I turned to my right, go to the end of the corridor, I would find the Lewis Carroll Room. I found it all right, in a hurry! What a beautiful sight greeted my eyes there! There it was--a large room filled with book shelf after book shelf of brand new books. The walls above the bookshelves were decorated with posters of scenes depicting various illustrations from a number of children's classics. There were scenes from Treasure Island, Alice in Wonderland, and a number of other well-known children's books. I stood there wide-eyed for a few moments, drinking it all in! Then the most beautiful lady in the world came to me! How can I ever forget Miss Phipps? She introduced herself, saying I am Margaret Phipps. I am your children's librarian. She was wearing a nicely tailored suit, a kind of powdered blue. Her blonde bobbed hair and smooth, unblemished complexion gave her the kind of wholesome Americano look as was often described by the paesanos of the Ginney Block! She took me over to a bench in a corner of the room near the windows that overlooked East Third Street and asked me to be seated until she selected some books for me.




For the first time as I sat there waiting, I began to feel rather uneasy and out-of-place. I began thinking, what am I doing here in such a grand place, coming as I do from a four room, cold water walk up flat in the Ginney Block on Race Street? That feeling was soon erased when Miss Phipps came back to me with five or six brand new books, and handed them to me with the suggestion that I look them over and choose any four to take home, that in the meantime she would prepare some cards for me to take home for my parents to sign, and that I could bring the cards back when I returned the books, which she said that I could have for fourteen days. What a break, I thought! She is going to trust me with these nice new books! You can be sure that I did just as she said. I selected four books, took them home with the library application cards. Needless to say, I don't recall what the books were now, however, I do recall that I returned them within a week with the signed cards, which enabled me to get my first library card, which was in reality my "Open Sesame" to the wonderful new world of books, and which started my love affair with books and libraries!