When she entered the maroon door of the white library of my hometown, the atmosphere would immediately be perfumed with reverence and respect. The women I worked with stopped what they were doing, a break from typing new index cards for the card catalog, perhaps, or punching Date Due cards to be inserted into back pockets. They always seemed to have a minute to talk with her, and she them.
As a 16 year old “page” working at the library shelving books after school, I wasn’t exactly sure who she was or why she was so important.
And I never really asked.
Which is a shame, because she was the reason that the library even existed in the first place.
Other libraries in the town had been established previously, the first in 1871 and the second, in 1919 – only to fail a few years later due to a lack of funds and volunteers. In 1953, Harriet Anderson thought it was time to try again. (It wasn’t her first civic venture; she had started a nursery school and kindergarten a few years earlier.) With 17 donated books and shelf space in a local cleaning business, the library was resurrected. Ten years later, the library moved into this former church pictured above. (It since moved again, into a more modern space.)
“Our community treasure” was Harriet Anderson, and she was also our community historian, having lived through much of it. She met her husband in while working on the U.S. Sesquicentennial celebration of 1926 in Philadelphia, married him in 1927, and graduated from college in 1929. She was a scholar of the first ladies, apropos because in a sense, she was our town’s.
We just didn’t know. At least I didn’t, and I think it can be said that among my contemporaries, her name was not a household word in our split-level suburban homes. Had I not worked at the library in several incarnations – first as a high school student, then as a collegian needing a summer job, and then as a stay-at-home mom desperate for adult interaction for a few hours a week – her name would have just been another obituary I read this morning, when I saw that Harriet Anderson died last week at “almost 102.”
There aren’t many left among us, these people like Harriet who have influenced and shaped the places we cherish and hold most dear, as I do with my library (for it will always be my library, even though I now live elsewhere). Sometimes, if we’re lucky, we recognize these people for the significance and the symbolism they hold while they are still with us.
In 1987, after I’d written and broadcast an award-winning editorial on a local news station about the deteriorating condition of the library (a steady rain would be enough to flood the children’s room, ruining numerous books) and how our affluent township should pony-up the funds for a new facility, I remember one of my coworkers telling me that Harriet thought my speech was very well-done.
I wish I knew how much I needed to say thanks.