Mister Carnegie’s “Libary”


Mother was so much a part of the library that it never occurred to me—or, I am sure, to her—that anything, certainly not Miss Pearl Horner, could disrupt our way of life and threaten her position as Mr. Carnegie’s most admiring employee. The threat, the undreamed-of danger, came on a board meeting night. For this event Mother always wore a silk dress and her little round gold watch fastened to a fleur-de-lis, and she got a marcel. The Private Room—really the office—which we both regarded as very special and ours alone, was dusted and swept and piles of books arranged neatly, for it was in this room that the board held their meetings. How we hated sharing the Private Room with anyone else! Here all the new books were unpacked, and we naturally took our pick of them before they went on the shelves. Here, while waiting to walk home with Mother, I curled up in one of the big black leather chairs with a National Geographic or Sara Teasdale’s poems and, like Ben Jacks, munched on lemon drops. Or lay lazily on the black leather couch and admired the elegant, greenish-colored fireplace at one end of the room. The carved mantel was top-heavy with marble statues, stuffed birds under a glass dome, and other objets d’art that people had donated with embarrassment to the library, things too bizarre or too ancient for their own homes but too valuable to discard.

When I saw the board members leave the library, I went into the office. Mother was sitting very still in front of the golden-oak roll-top desk, and I knew immediately that something was wrong. Usually she was in high spirits after a board meeting.

“What’s the matter, are you sick?” I asked anxiously.

“You know Pearl Horner,” Mother said quietly.

“Of course I do.” Pearl Horner had worked in the library last summer, a large blonde girl who went back to college in the fall.

“Pearl wants to be librarian,” Mother said lifelessly.

“But you’re librarian!”

“Pearl has a degree in library science now. She told the board about the new methods she learned. It made a big impression on Mr. Albans and some of the others. Not that she could improve anything here. I read the library bulletins, I go to the conventions. Of course,” Mother mused hopefully, “they aren’t planning on a thing yet. It’s just that they mentioned it to me, and I know some of them think Pearl might be a better librarian because of her degree.”

“But you went to college,” I argued. I was always fascinated by the college Mother had gone to. Her school days had been so long ago that the college no longer existed, but it had had a wonderful name, Central Female Academy.

“They didn’t have library science then,” Mother said sadly. “Not at Central, anyway.” She had taken German and painting and philosophy, and our house was filled with hand-painted china, German grammars, and philosophy books. But she had not learned to be a librarian in college. That had corne when she started long ago as an assistant in the library after my father died. She had pasted torn pages and book jackets, catalogued books, stacked magazines, kept files, checked books in and out, pored over book lists, placated board members, and had done all the countless things that must be taken care of in a library. Only on Saturday nights after work did she find time to do what people thought librarians spent all of their time doing, read books. And here was Miss Pearl Horner, a snip of a girl armed with determination and a degree, trying to persuade the library board they needed a librarian with more education.

“What will we do?” I whispered. And, after a moment’s thought, “What will happen to Ben Jacks?”

The New York Times , of course, was what saved the library for us. Mother had innumerable clippings from it for the library files about Columbia University in New York. And now everything seemed amazingly clear. Helen and Eloise, who had just started teaching careers, wanted to go to summer school, and Mother would go, too, and study library science. We would all go—to Columbia University, holy of holies, as far as library schools were concerned. That would fix Pearl Horner, who certainly had never studied at such a sacred place.


In those days the university offered true hospitality to its summer students. “Columbia is going to meet us,” Mother told us excitedly. I would not have been surprised if the representative chosen to welcome us had been Mr. Butler himself, but we were all perfectly satisfied to be rescued from Grand Central Station by a nice young student wearing a red carnation in his buttonhole for identification.