JFB present a guest post from Lisa Tuttle, author of the amazing The Silver Bough on this, the official publication date of her book, congratulations Lisa!
Although I love buying books, and own far more than my small house can reasonably accommodate, I’m also a big fan of public libraries. As a child growing up in Houston, trips to the main library downtown were a special treat. Unlike our modest local branch, the main library had an entire children’s room, and the children’s librarian, responding to my hunger for more books, showed me another room, behind it, where older books were stored. I liked old stories just as much as new ones, and although I appreciate good cover art, there is something about an old-fashioned library book in its plain, utilitarian binding, with nothing but the title offering a clue to its contents, that I find irresistible even now. It is a mystery waiting to be solved. When you can’t judge a book by its cover, you simply have to open it, and start reading.
As with books, so with buildings. The contents are the main thing, but the design, structure, layout and appearance are also important. I felt at home in our local library – a cheerful, bright, single-storey, open-plan room not dissimilar to my kindergarten – but the central library downtown was not only many times larger, with staircases and lots of different rooms, it was also a magical place, historic and awe-inspiring.
Named the Julia Ideson Building after the city’s first public librarian (hired in 1903, she headed the library until her death, forty-two years later), it was designed in the 1920s by a famous Boston architectural firm in the beautiful Spanish Renaissance style which almost immediately went out of fashion, so that it was a singular landmark, suggesting another place and time in the midst of the thrusting, modern, booming cityscape. There was very little of the past in Houston in the 1960s; it was sprawling and modern, a city of freeways like Los Angeles, it was Space City, the Astros were our team, and all eyes were on the future. If something was old, it was useless, fit only to be demolished and something better put in its place. Luckily, by the 1970s when the madly expanding city needed a much bigger modern library, the Julia Ideson Building was recognised as too beautiful to lose, and it was retained as a home for special research collections.
I left Houston before the new library was built. I lived in New York, Austin, London, Devonshire and, finally (I think I am here for good), Scotland. In some ways, moving from my childhood home in Houston (near the Highland Village Shopping Center) to my present location in the actual Scottish Highlands has been like a journey from the future into the past. But back to the subject of libraries: Our local library, in the village, is open only two days a week, and it’s tiny: a storefront that used to be a small shoe shop. But roughly thirty-five miles away, towards the Mull of Kintyre, at the end of the road immortalised in Paul McCartney’s song ‘The Long and Winding Road’, lies Campbeltown, and the Burnet Building.
Designed and built by J.J. Burnet in his impressive Scots Renaissance style, it opened in 1899 as the Campbeltown Public Library and Museum, and was still serving that purpose when I arrived in the 1990s. I loved how it looked, outside and in, and I also loved discovering the local collection shelved near the back of the reference room (later, and briefly, also the computer room) – which included not only books about local history and guides to wildlife, geology, architecture, etc, but many strange and curious volumes of forgotten lore – folklore, fairy-tales, superstitions, traditions, myths and legends. The odd little museum housed in another wing was also a treat.
I visited the library whenever I could find an excuse to drive down to Campbeltown, and when they advertised for a ‘Relief Library Assistant’ to work occasionally, providing cover for staff on holiday or ill, I jumped at the chance. Working there allowed me to visit behind the scenes and learn much more about the library, and to get some sense of the life of ‘the wee toon’ through the people I met there. Although the characters and setting of The Silver Bough are entirely fictional, they were inspired by my experiences in Campbeltown’s old public library as much as by the folktales and legends I’ve read over the years. I think of it as my love letter to the library.
by Lisa Tuttle
28 June 2012
Lisa is the author of The Silver Bough, coming from Jo Fletcher Books . . . TODAY!! To buy a copy of this beautiful demy hardback, go here
Let us know why you like your local library and you could win a copy of The Silver Bough, comment below!