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Why I Celebrate National Library Week

Biff Barnes

I walked into my hometown branch of the Shasta County Library on Monday afternoon. Near the front desk a colorful sign invited me to Celebrate National Library Week. As it so often happens, I missed the memo. The celebration was last week, April 10-16. But I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to join the celebration, no matter how tardy I might be.


I began a love affair with libraries in 1959. I was an eighth grader. Of course, I had been going to libraries for years by then. Both my parents were voracious readers and I had become one by default. We could all read a lot more books than we could ever afford to buy or find shelf space for, so I had been visiting the Park Branch of the San Francisco Public Library since I had been old enough to pull Make Way for Ducklings off the shelf of the Children’s Department. But 1959 was different.

My eighth grade social studies teacher, an energetic and inspirational woman named Julia Ross with just a touch of a twang from her native Texas had assigned U.S. History research papers to the class. The assignment had a twist. Mrs. Ross had selected an individual topic for each student in the class. I don’t remember them all. I do remember that Daniel Boone sounded good. I remember being really jealous when somebody else got assigned Davy Crockett. When she came to me, Mrs. Ross look at me and said, “Merritt, (Nobody ever called me Biff in school and you didn’t ask in those days.) I want you to do your paper on the Yankee Peddler.” What? I had absolutely no idea what that meant. She told me I needed to find out.

My father said we’d find the answer at the library. We headed out, but we didn’t go to the Park Branch. We went to the San Francisco Main Library, a magnificent four-story edifice of neoclassical marble on the east side of Civic Center Plaza opposite City Hall. (The structure is now enjoying another incarnation as the city’s Asian Art Museum and the new Main Library is across the street in a newer, more functional, less charming building.) We entered through one of the massive sets of double doors. Dad said, “Upstairs” pointing to the wide marble staircase across the lobby. At the top of the stairs were rows and rows of small file drawers. The card catalog. I had used the card catalog before, but this wasn’t the Roosevelt Junior High School Library card catalog. It was an expansive space that seemed to cover a lot of the second floor. A forty-foot domed ceiling made it even more dramatic. A crowd of people were purposefully pulling out drawers, searching through the cards, jotting down notes and heading off to somewhere. I didn’t know where. Dad helped me search the card catalog. I wrote down the titles and call numbers of several books that looked like they might help me find out what a peddler was and what possible significance in history they might have had.

List in hand I followed my father in the direction I had seen others head. We went through a doorway and emerged into the stacks. If the catalog lobby had been wonderful for its openness, the stacks were a claustrophobic rabbit warren of four floors of narrow aisles and high shelves all jammed with books. Dad helped me locate the books with the call numbers we had jotted down. Fortunately they were all there. I guess there wasn’t a high demand for titles on peddlers. We carried the books back downstairs to a reading room, sorted through them and chose the six (the maximum you were allowed to take out at the time) we thought looked best. We took them to the checkout desk. I presented my library card. The librarian stamped each book with a due date. We walked by outside.

The visit to the Main Library was an adventure. When I stepped into Civic Center Plaza I couldn’t articulate exactly why, but I was sure that I had been someplace special, someplace I wanted to visit again soon.

By the time I went back to return my books I had learned that a Yankee peddler was probably a New Englander who had headed to the frontier along the Appalachian Mountains just before the days of the 19th Century to make a living, a combination of an entrepreneur and explorer and an informal mail carrier bearing letters to an from the folks back home. In a pack on his back or that of his horse or mule he carried a virtual retail emporium of needles and notions, buttons, bows and bolts of cloth. Where ever he went he was warmly greeted. Company on the frontier was hard to come by and most peddlers seem to have cultivated the art of storytelling. His successors would become fixtures on the western scene as Americans pushed the frontier toward the Pacific. And I also learned that Daniel Boone might not have made it through the Cumberland Gap into Kentucky if a peddler named John Finley hadn’t told him the way.

That first visit to the S.F. Main and I was hooked. It was no accident that I would wind up a historian and history teacher. Libraries can do that to you.

That’s why I celebrate National Library Week even if it is a few days late.