The smallest public library I ever used was also, curiously, the best. It was located on perhaps the largest U.S. military base in Germany then (late 1950s) and now. Baumholder is and was one of two gigantic artillery and armored firing ranges. The post housed (still does) 10,000 troops and about a thousand dependents, so-called, the spouses and children of officers and non-coms. The library had about 5,000 titles but these of the highest quality. I’ve often wondered since how that had come about. I could and did sample the best of literature, history, philosophy, and science there. It was astonishing. A mere handful of us used the place—honestly, really. The place had the strange aura of a branch office, but of Mount Olympus, descended to the great wastes of organized destruction. Compact yet complete; empty like an Anglican church; staffed by diffident and lonely DOD civil servants starved for bookish conversation which, despite or because of the emptiness, we held in hushed and reverent tones. Yes, yes. Baumholder library. It surprised me to discover that it’s still there—but updated. It has its own website now; it still welcomes the nostalgic browser with its on-line catalogue; and in that catalogue I could still find the old mile-stones of my personal development—in the old editions yet.
The military has a culture of its own; it extends beyond the merely martial; the military knows much about values and is impervious to markets. Back in those days, with a universal draft drawing all males, it served as a kind of national educational system in which the teaching of values was not only permitted but expected. And the odd corollary of that culture were tiny libraries dense in cultural and intellectual riches.
We lived in many places and drew on the holdings of vast public urban libraries. I’ve used academic libraries going to school as well—and midsized facilities in historic places like Fairfax, Va. Fairfax had a rich Civil War collection; not surprising. The big publics were good libraries, but there is something about a library you can actually get to know intimately. Here in Grosse Pointe the library ought to be rich, dense, and satisfying: this is a very upscale area. It isn’t. The wealth of inhabitants has gone into display. Our poor library struggles, means well, tries very hard. But it cannot be compared to that strange chapel of culture in Baumholder.
The library in Overland Park, Kansas, was (probably still is) the other shining beacon in our own limited exposure. It was much bigger, to be sure, way out there on the edges of the suburbs (these days enfolded by suburbs that stretch into the dim distance beyond it, shopping center after shopping center—until at last the grain elevators take over). Loved the Overland Park Library. A stellar achievement—probably of one energetic and yet enlightened personality, no doubt well known in his or her own circle, not much beyond, one of those people little seen, never feted in the media, who uphold the real culture here in America as also everywhere.
These thoughts to mark the occasion that school has ended—and in consequence of it, our library hours are changing. Nota bene: you’ve got to get in there before 5 p.m. on Fridays or Katie will have barred the door.