All Their Ways are Helping Ways: Stories from the History of Madison Public Library

3. The People: "All Their Ways are Helping Ways and Glad to See You Ways"

"A library is a delivery room for the birth of ideas, a place where history comes to life." Norman Cousins, Essayist & Editor

The further back one delves into the history of the Madison Public Library, the sparser the information regarding the behaviors and motivations of the central characters who shaped that history. While this means that there are fewer facts to help unravel the historical puzzles of "what happened," it also frees our imaginations and allows us to speculate about the thoughts and motives behind their actions in an attempt to fathom those worlds of the past.

The connections between the seemingly unrelated individuals who dedicated their work lives to the library often are as fascinating as the stories themselves. Librarian Virginia Robbins began working when the library was situated in the former city treasurer's office and eventually married the city treasurer. Board member Frank Hutchins founded the Wisconsin Traveling Library service at the turn of the twentieth century; Orrilla Blackshear, assistant director of the Madison Public Library from 1957-1967, served as the Wisconsin Traveling Library director from 1947-1957. While there’s no cause-effect in any of these relationships, the initial event in each case does seem connected to subsequent developments.

From 1910 to 1982, MPL had only three library directors: Mary Smith, Helen Farr, and Bernard Schwab. Were the long tenures of these leaders beneficial or detrimental to the development of the library? The major accomplishments of each are well known and impressive. Their shortcomings are less apparent and the impact speculative. Would the library's growth have differed had Mary Smith had a positive attitude toward the press and less patronizing attitude toward the public? Would the library's collection and ability to provide services have expanded signifcantly had it not taken Helen Farr fifteen years to convince the library board that financial responsibility for the school libraries ought to be transferred from the library to the Board of Education? Would the South Central Library System have formed three years earlier had Bernard Schwab anticipated opposition to its formation by the library board? Hindsight enables us to ponder Robert Frost’s "road not taken."

The stories that follow are not necessarily the most historically important in terms of the evolution of the Madison Public Library. Rather, they are the tales most revealing in attempting to understand the people who have been instrumental in nurturing the growth of the library. They are accounts of how these committed men and women responded to the demands of their time and tackled innumerable problems in their quest to provide service to the citizens of Madison.

A Plum of a Job: Madison Free Library's First Librarian

When Virginia Robbins assumed her position as the first librarian for the Madison Free Library (MFL) in 1875, her supervisors, the nine-member Board of Directors, were men characterized by Kim Kfird in her paper "The Genesis of the Madison Public Library" as "the city's elite." They were lawyers, judges, a banker, a lumber merchant, a future mayor of Madison, the "movers and shakers" of their day. They had been the leaders of the Madison Institute, the forerunner of the MFL and the leading catalyst of cultural activities in Madison during the preceding twenty years. They conceived the MFL as an educational institution and considered themselves guarantors that the institution would function accordingly. In Madison and throughout the United States, librarians such as Virginia Robbins were considered clerks whose jobs were to dispense books requested by patrons, keep track of withdrawals and returns, and monitor the library. Professionally trained librarians would not be available to staff the nation's libraries until 1887, when Melvil Dewey opened his School of Library Economy at Columbia College in New York. It wasn't until December 1901 that the MFL hired its first trained librarian.

During her tenure, we know about Virginia Robbins' job responsibilities, her salary, and the hours the library was open. We know that eleven ballots were taken before a clear majority was given to Miss Robbins when the Free Library board selected her as their librarian. We know that when she left the library to eat lunch, city workers in adjacent offices dropped in to assist visitors in finding the books they wanted. Beyond these facts, we are left with many unanswerable questions about her thoughts and feelings regarding her two-year stint as the librarian.

What was her relationship with those nine men who were attempting to set a high standard of morality and manners for the city of Madison? Did the board specifically tell her what to do regarding each aspect of her job, "micromanage" as we say in the twenty-first century? Did she crave more responsibility and autonomy, or was she relieved by not having to make the major decisions involved in the library's governance? Did she thrive in the task of creating the Catalogue of the Madison Free Library 1877, or did she find it laborious listing 4,858 volumes both by author and title? Did she feel fortunate to have a job with so much contact with the public, or did she crave a more traditional, family-focused role for herself? Did she feel fortunate to have a job at all? Was she the envy of her peers for having such a glamorous job as "librarian? What was her relationship with those city workers who filled in for her over the lunch hour? Did her salary meet her needs, or did she resent the gulf between her wage and that of the more highly paid men employed elsewhere in Madison? Did she decline reelection as the librarian in July 1877 because she wearied of the job, disliked the board, resented the wages, no longer felt challenged, or simply wanted to pursue other interests? In short, what was it like being MFL's first librarian?

A Local Celebrity as Librarian: Ella Giles, Hospital Crusader and Wisconsin's First Published Novelist

We know considerably more about the librarian who would lead the MFL from 1879-1884 because Ella Giles was somewhat of a local celebrity before she assumed her library post. Well-known as a local author, she had written three books before 1879, including the first novel ever published by a Wisconsin author, Bachelor Ben. In addition, in 1878 she had cofounded the exclusive Madison Literary Club, whose membership was limited to fifty persons with "acknowledged literary taste." The club's main objective, according to cofounder Rasmus B. Anderson, was to coalesce the Madison literati:

"Our main objective was to have all the literary people of the city get acquainted with each other and to have an organization that would be able to invite and entertain in a modest way distinguished persons, lecturers, musical artists, actors, and actresses, etc. when they visited Madison, so that we might have the honor of meeting them. Madison had been visited from time to time by such people as Frederika Bremer, Horace Greeley, Bayard Taylor, and Wendell Philips, but only a few had the opportunity of meeting them."

As with Virginia Robbins, we can only speculate about Ella Giles' experience being the MFL librarian. Why did she choose to become the librarian? Already an accomplished author and cultural leader, what was she seeking in her MFL position? Was it another connection to books and literature? A way for an author to have daily contact with people? An opportunity to provide service to humanity above and beyond the impact of her publications? A job necessary to earn a living wage?

Ella Giles' most lasting contribution to Madison was unrelated to either her library work or literary accomplishments. In a lecture presented at the Fuller Opera House on November 30, 1880, called "What Madison Needs," she argued for more space for the library and reading room, proposed establishing a refuge for "destitute men and women," and spoke in great detail about the inhumane and unenlightened treatment of the sick in Madison. Her eloquence and passion reverberated throughout her vision of how to rectify some of the glaring shortcomings in Madison’s social service landscape. In this era when home was considered the proper place for a sick person, family members expected to be the primary care providers, and only the affluent able to summon a doctor when warranted by serious illness, the health care options were grim for transients, students, those without families, and the poor. Miss Giles entered the first public plea for a hospital in Madison’s history. Apparently, this plea hit a sensitive nerve. Before leaving the lecture, the audience appointed a committee of prominent citizens to erect a hospital that became the nucleus of the Madison Hospital Association. Although it took nearly a decade before her plea to provide health care for the "poor and unfortunate" resulted in the actual construction of a hospital, her speech was an early catalyst for the hospital crusade. In the inscription to Bachelor Ben, Ella Giles wrote: "Deeds are fruits, words are but leaves." In her lifetime, Miss Giles produced both fruits and leaves.

Several themes Ella Giles addressed in "What Madison Needs" are still relevant in the twenty-first century: the need for more space and extended hours for the library, the problems of homelessness and alcoholism, the disparity between the salaries of men and women, and the lack of adequate recreational opportunities and facilities for young people. Excerpts from her lecture printed in the Wisconsin State Journal on December 1, 1880, are presented below.

What Madison Needs

"A worthy Quaker once wrote: ‘I expect to pass through this world but once. If, therefore, there be any kindness I can show, or any good thing I can to do to any fellow human being, let me do it now. Let me not defer or neglect it, for I will not pass this way again.’

There are a few things I want to say about Madison and its needs. If I am ever to say them, let me say them to you now, for I will not pass this way again!

I should consider myself a traitor to truth, did I entirely suppress the utterance of some of my profound convictions regarding the wants of Madison. I might merely have written them for publication, but I would rather look into your faces and speak to you from the abundance of my heart. The claims I shall bring forth are not imaginary; the wants are not artificial. Strengthened by the living power of my love for my home and my home friends, and knowing that my suggestions are practical and may be carried out by you, I have invited you to listen to them.…

Ah, young men and young women, be careful lest you sow "wild oats" in your minds, your inner lives, that may sprout into outward actions which, in the slow process of growth, maturity and decay, shall bring misery to yourselves and the gray hairs of those who love you, in sorrow to the grave….

How fortunate it is for us all that the instability of our minds sometimes works for good as well as evil. How fortunate that we tire at length even of amusements. Works of fiction that have not some deep, underlying principle of nature cannot long retain their hold upon the mind; and people turn away from them in disgust, as the drunkard does from drugged and adulterated liquor. Most fortunate for such if they do not find themselves unfitted forever for a loftier plane in literature or a higher sphere in social life….

Oh, if you but knew how hopeful the outlook is to one who, as Librarian, having been brought into direct communication with over 5,000 minds in this city, is able to speak with authority concerning the diffusion of knowledge in literature, science, and art! And why should it not be hopeful? The habit of reading does not breed immorality, and a majority of the books read here are the very best books the world contains….

Woman's work is poorly paid in Madison. But the women who are doing men's work for smaller compensation than any man receives; if they are doing it well, are rising into power that will be felt by and by, when the justice of their claims shall have been demonstrated by intelligent advocates. They are rising slowly but surely above their present condition….

During the past sixteen months, I have been in the habit of visiting the jail for the purpose of taking worn-out library books to the prisoners. Greedy boys and gloomy "jailbirds," with broken wings and crushed spirits, are not over-nice or over-particular about the bindings of the volumes they read. Books that, in boy phraseology, "h'aint got no back," are as acceptable as any others. What a grand thing it is that the best part of a good book, its thoughts, can be passed from mind to mind: from pretty girl to petty thief, from hopeful student to morbid prisoner, from pious saint to perjured sinner, without losing any of its purity or power.

To me it also seems a grand thing that the tired books, after traveling the city until their spinal columns are weakened, and after being so badly treated by their readers that their systems need to be toned up, do sometimes find their natural affinities- the tired men and women, who have stumbled in journeying over rough roads, and fallen against the sharp wayside hedges of this world, until aching is the chronic condition of their souls….

The Library belongs to the people. It bespeaks their taste, the degree of their interest and its condition depends upon their generosity. ...There are those who never enter without exclaiming, 'How pleasant it is here. What a grand thing it is for a city to own a place like this. Getting pretty crowded though, ain't you? You ought to have more room. The whole first floor of the City Hall ought to be used for Library purposes. Push the matter. Make the people understand just what is needed, and it can all be brought about.' I believe people when they talk like that, and I wish to voice their sentiments in your presence tonight.

Will you help to push the matter, you who have influence, and there is not a person here who has not probably a great deal more than he knows. You cannot weigh the widespread results of having established in this city a Free Library. You cannot take in the scope of its power. No one can define the limits of its overflowing benefits.…

To sum up my conclusions, and arrive at the objects really in view, I would say that Madison needs more general association between its educated and uneducated classes of society. It needs more self-denial on the part of those who are leaders in social life. It needs more places where the young can find innocent and healthful amusements….Madison needs endowments and a larger appropriation from the Common Council to be expanded for library purposes, so that its reading room may be extended and kept open from early until late. The City Library is indeed a home for the friendless: a refuge for many a homeless one, as my observations over the last two years have convinced me. But it is the only public institution here that even approaches that nature….

I thank you for your attention. I should not have dared solicit it had I not felt that my suggestions would at least prove worthy of your future consideration."

An Illustrious Member of the Library Board: Frank A. Hutchins

In the same year that Ella Giles left the Madison Free Library (1884), Frank Hutchins began his long and distinguished involvement in library affairs. Like Ella Giles, he had a broad vision for how to improve the lives of Madison’s citizens, but his local pulpit was the dais of the Madison Library Board.

Born in Norwalk, Ohio, Hutchins moved to Wisconsin in 1854, where he was educated at Wayland Academy and Beloit College. He became the coeditor and publisher of the Beaver Dam Argus in 1884. A strong proponent of self-education through reading, he quickly identified the town’s need for a library and was instrumental in starting the Beaver Dam Free Library in 1884. As a result of his influence, a local banker bequeathed $25,000 in 1890 for a public library building that became the second in the nation to remove the railings between the public and the shelves.

During the next two decades, he became a dominant figure in Wisconsin's burgeoning library movement. He was a prime figure in the founding of the Wisconsin Library Association in 1891 (the organization of Wisconsin libraries) and of the Wisconsin Free Library Commission in 1895 (the state agency whose mission was to promote library development). As the Commission's first chairman from 1895 to 1904, he played a strong role in raising the number of Wisconsin's libraries from twenty-eight to one hundred twenty-six.

During Hutchin's travels throughout the state, he became acutely aware of the vast areas of Wisconsin with no access to books, nor a means of gaining a tax base sufficient to support public libraries. Hence, he created thirty-seven traveling libraries, financed by Senator James Stout of Menomonie. These libraries shipped groups of books to small towns and rotated them between communities. In part, Hutchin’s hope was that these itinerant libraries would ignite a movement for permanent libraries. By 1904 there were three hundred fifty of the traveling libraries in Wisconsin. In the year 2000, there are three hundred eighty-one permanent public libraries in Wisconsin, which attests to the success of the traveling library experiment.

Frank Hutchins also carefully selected the books for the traveling libraries, trying to include something that would appeal to every age and a variety of tastes. During his employ as the township library clerk for the Wisconsin Department of Education, Hutchins had prepared a book-buying list to provide guidance for school libraries in the townships. In 1897 he revised this list and published it as a Suggestive List of Book Purchases for the use of small libraries. Revisions of this list were issued annually and beginning in 1901 it was supplemented with a monthly Buying List of new titles. This list was so popular that surrounding states requested it for their own use, and eventually it became the American Library Association Booklist. Still published today, the ALA Booklist has become the main source of book reviews for libraries in the United States, currently reviewing more than eight thousand new books each year.

As a board member of the Madison Free Library from 1901 to1904 and 1906 to1912, Frank Hutchins' contributions were many and enduring. It is likely that the MFL hired its first professionally trained librarian because of Hutchins’ prodding. When the MFL hired Albany Library School graduate Bertha Brown in 1901, Hutchins already had been agitating for the training of librarians throughout Wisconsin for several years. In 1895, he had invited Katharine Sharp, Director of the Library Training Class of the Armour Institute, Chicago, to come to Madison to present a paper on library schools. Her lecture planted the seed for developing a training program in Wisconsin, and eventually the Wisconsin Library School opened on the second floor of the Madison Free Library where it resided from 1906 to1938.

Frank Hutchins also was largely responsible for Madison being the recipient of the largest grant allocated to any Carnegie-funded library in Wisconsin. In 1902, the sum of $40,000 had been obtained from Andrew Carnegie for the purchase of a new library building in Madison. Hutchins, hoping to establish a library school, prevailed upon Carnegie to boost the gift to $75,000 so that such a school could be established. Hutchins motivations for seeking the additional funding are unclear. It is uncertain whether he had originally planned for the Library School to be housed under the same roof as the Madison Free Library or if he used the opportunity to establish a Library School as a means of persuading Carnegie to provide extra funds, thus enabling a larger building with MFL's future expansion in mind. In any case, he achieved both ends. The Library School shared the Carnegie library building with the MFL for the next thirty-two years, and both parties reaped many benefits from their joint occupancy of the building.

"If I had to Start My Life All Over Again, I Would Do the Same Thing"

Like Frank Hutchins, Julia Hopkins, chief librarian from 1902 to 1908, was a pioneer in the Madison library system. When she arrived in 1902, the library was crowded into the first floor of city hall on the Capitol Square, its books circulating sluggishly, and its facilities too restrictive for real public service. With a beginning salary of $90 per month, she quickly launched a campaign to get a new facility, to attract more patrons, and to let Madisonians know about their library. She arrived on November 1 and by the day before Thanksgiving, had inaugurated the library's first exhibit. The exhibit, two hundred of the year's best books, many of them shown in Madison for the first time, attracted crowds to the library and nearly swamped bookstores with the demand.

Throughout her tenure as Madison's public library leader, she created new policies to make the library more user-friendly. She liberalized lending policies so that patrons could check out more than one nonfiction book at a time, permitted reserve requests, allowed circulation of popular magazines, initiated rental collections, and organized clubs where mothers could learn about their children's reading. She added musical scores to the collection for circulation, opened new deposit stations in various neighborhoods, inaugurated an apprentice class for aspiring librarians, and helped to complete a new catalogue of library materials.

Julia Hopkins played a vital role in supervising the erection of the Carnegie Library at 206 N. Carroll Street. When the new library building was ready for occupancy in 1906, her meticulous preparations for the move into the new facility produced impressive results: "We moved the entire collection, about 20,000 books, in only two days…and library service was not interrupted for an hour!" The transition did not proceed entirely without glitches, however. Shortly after the new library opened, Miss Hopkins had planned a meeting and a tea to welcome the mothers' groups to the new structure. On the morning of the event she discovered with horror that the library's gas connections were not yet in place. There was no way to heat the tea for her visitors. Julia Hopkins was accustomed to overcoming obstacles in her work, and this crisis was no exception. She sent out an emergency plea for women to bring samovars (metal urns with spigots used to boil water) to heat the tea water. The plea was answered, and the party was a success.

Shortly after the meeting, a woman whose samovar helped save the day came sheepishly into the library. "I'm so chagrined to think my samovar came to the library before I did," she admitted. "I've come to get acquainted."

Special programs for children were offered in the new library, including a popular series on geography. One Memorial Day, Miss Hopkins invited an old soldier to regale the youngsters with his Civil War experiences. Several months later, he asked a favor in return for his service. Would Miss Hopkins please come to speak at the evening service of his church, which was too new and too poor to afford a minister yet? "I never occupied a pulpit-but I went," she recalled. "Books are a saving grace, I told the congregation, and I talked to them about books."

Like many librarians in the early 1900s, Julia Hopkins considered one of her responsibilities to uphold a high standard of manners and morals in the library. Hence, when she witnessed a violation of appropriate behavior, she sprang into action.

On a sweltering July afternoon in 1906, she saw a man take off his coat in the main reading room and roll his sleeves up to the elbow. When a second man followed his example, she banished them to the basement reading room, explaining, "I realized that we could not have that sort of thing going on."

Two years earlier, Julia Hopkins had sprung into action in an entirely different vein when the State Capitol caught fire. In David Mollenhoff's book Madison: A History of the Formative Years, he describes that fire that ultimately led to the construction of the State Capitol standing today:

"About 2:45 a.m. on Saturday, February 27, 1904 a watchman in the State Capitol smelled smoke and ran immediately to the cloak room where he found the ceiling ablaze. Firemen were called but when they arrived no water would come from the capitol hydrants. By the time the firemen hooked their hoses to the city mains, the fire had spread to a large portion of the south wing and threatened the dome. When the sun rose, about eighty per cent of the grand old building lay in ruins."

On Sunday, May 14, 1950, in celebration of the library's seventy-fifth anniversary, Jack Buechler interviewed Julia Hopkins on WKOW’s radio program The Classical Hour.

Her comments in that interview regarding the fire describe her adventure:

Buechler: Was it (the library) a pleasant place to work?

Hopkins: The wide windows were especially pleasant, though the boys used to go by and rap on them. They made a nice vantagepoint for us to watch the burning of the capitol.

Buechler: When was that?

Hopkins: In 1904. It was at night and in blizzard weather. I remember a man came running down the street shouting, "People of Wisconsin, your capitol is burning."

My sister and I went down to the City Hall (home of the library). I let us in with my key and we watched the capitol burn. It was very exciting. They didn’t have enough equipment to fight the fire, and had to send to Milwaukee for more.

Julia Hopkins resigned as library director effective September 1, 1908, after a disagreement with the library board. She felt herself "loaded down with petty details of clerical work" that prevented her from doing some of the things she believed a library director should do. She also asserted that "the reading public is subjected to many annoyances for which I, as librarian, am held responsible; but which, under your policy, are beyond my power to control or correct." She'd sought more administrative control of the library, was refused by the board, and hence submitted her resignation. She returned East where she had lived as a child and spent the next twenty-six years as supervisor of training at the Brooklyn, New York Public Library.

During her interview with Jack Buechler on WKOW, he commented that it sounded as though she had enjoyed being a librarian. Julia Hopkins affirmed her love of the profession by telling Buechler: "If I had to start my life over again, I would do the same thing. We librarians work with the two most wonderful things in the world-books and people-bringing them together."

Mary Smith: Librarian with a Green Thumb

After Julia Hopkins' departure from MFL, the Board decided to hire a male librarian. Attracting Madison workingmen was a priority, and the board members felt that a male library director would most effectively accomplish this. Thus, George Averill, trained in Frank Hutchins' Library Commission summer course in 1902, succeeded Miss Hopkins and ran the library for the next two years. Young and inexperienced, Averill's tenure as chief librarian produced few noteworthy accomplishments, attracting workingmen or otherwise, and his acceptance of a job in University Extension field work in 1910 led to the hiring of a new librarian who would remain in that position for more than two decades.

Mary Smith was the chief librarian for the Madison Free Library from October 17, 1910, through May 1, 1936. Her most significant accomplishment was to expand the clientele served by the library. She established the first branch library on Williamson Street in 1913 and then a second branch on West Washington Avenue in the Neighborhood House in 1917. In 1924, she inaugurated book service to patients at Madison General Hospital, and a few years later added service for St. Mary’s and Methodist patients. She initiated library service in the public schools in 1911, a service which would continue for the next forty-one years. Increases in borrowers, circulation, and book stocks were a matter of course during her administration. In 1920, for example, an American Library Association survey found that circulation in Madison had increased to be 81 percent higher than that in other cities with a population of 30,000 to 75,000.

In her history of the Madison Public Library, Free and Public: One Hundred Years with Madison Public Library, Janet Ela described Mary Smith as "an enormously good administrator, combining a long view with a mathematical grasp of details." Even the aesthetics of the library received Mary Smith's attention. In October 1915 she wrote an article in the Wisconsin Library Bulletin describing "Growing Bulbs in the Library," which began:

"Jars of blossoming bulbs in a library from Thanksgiving to Easter give pleasure to so many people that we have found it worth the little care they demand. No other flowers give so large results for so little effort. They can be obtained at so small cost and add so much to the attractiveness of the library that the expense seems a legitimate library item…"

 

Her affinity for horticulture also was evident in MFL's participation in the campaign for food conservation during World War I. Under Mary Smith’s direction, MFL provided patrons with a rich supply of garden books and distributed government publications on gardening, canning, and food preservation.

Mary Smith possessed a paradoxical attitude toward publicizing library services. On the one hand, she periodically published articles in the Wisconsin Library Bulletin, thereby demonstrating a commitment to make public contributions to her profession. Implicitly, each of these articles was a reflection on the practices of the Madison Free Library itself. On the other hand, those who served with Mary Smith recalled her antipathy for the press. In 1921 she reported that no newspaper publicity had been used for the year.

"Use of the library," Smith said, "has been so heavy that it would not be fair to advertise it and risk disappointing newly stimulated readers!"

Mary Smith possessed such a strong personality that Lillian Moehlman, a cataloguer on her staff for many years, said, "Miss Smith always was the Library to me." Janet Ela, her niece, described her as having a "personality of such force and magnitude that for many years the Library and Mary Smith were almost synonymous.'"

When Mary Smith dealt with disciplinary matters in the library, the severity of her personality came to the fore. Like Julia Hopkins, she held high standards of behavior and they were not to be violated. When children and adolescents misbehaved in the library, Mary Smith often sent a letter of reprimand to the transgressors' parents, school, or to the transgressors themselves. Two such letters are presented below. They provide us with an understanding of her expectations for proper library etiquette, demonstrate her willingness to threaten legal recourse as a deterrent to inappropriate behavior, and present a blunt, judgmental element of her personality that must have made her a formidable public official and staff supervisor.

Letter from Mary Smith

Letter from Mary Smith

Mary Smith's notion of appropriate etiquette extended beyond the confines of the library doors. In a letter sent in 1925 to Walter Smith, director of the University Library, on the matter of cooperating with the University Library in providing service to patients at the Wisconsin General Hospital, her salutation began, "My dear Mr. Smith…" Though friendly, this is a rather formal way to address one's brother!

Helen Farr, Librarian: "And Quietly, the Revolution Began."

Helen FarrIn 1936, when Mary Smith announced her retirement as the City Librarian for the MFL, Helen Farr, instructor in School Library Methods at Columbia University, was selected to replace her. Farr's specialization in school library service was recognized as an important qualification for the position since MFL had been operating school libraries with public library resources since 1911 and governed seventeen school libraries with thirteen school librarians when she was hired. Within one year of assuming leadership of MFL, she recommended that the responsibility for school library service be transferred to the Board of Education since she was convinced that the school service was significantly debilitating the library's ability to serve adults. Although this issue was not resolved until fifteen years later, her willingness to break with longstanding tradition and policy is characteristic of the strong resolve she displayed in leading the library throughout her twenty-one year tenure as chief librarian.

Helen Farr was known to "shoot from the hip." She could change positions on a given issue overnight. In contrast to the deliberate, methodical management style of her successor Bernard Schwab, Miss Farr could be erratic and arbitrary. She found it difficult to delegate authority and at times mistrusted her staff to the extreme point of reportedly locking librarian Ellen Erickson in a closet to prevent her speaking to the media. At the same time, she was known for being capable of attracting excellent staff members and for working with determination to secure improved working conditions, raise professional standards, and obtain better salaries for her staff.

In terms of fiscal management, a neighbor lauded her for being "conscientious about getting the greatest possible return for every dollar that has been expended for library administration or books," while another acquaintance described her as a "penny pincher" who hated to spend library funds for anything.

Helen Farr's philosophy was to take the task that presented a challenge, do the best work possible, and go on to something else when there was nothing more she felt she could contribute. Many of the changes she initiated are still in effect today. She liberalized lending policies by abolishing the rule limiting the number of books that could be checked out at one time. She hired the first full-time reference librarian for the MFL; reference service has been an important feature of the library ever since. She guided the library through the dislocations of the war years and made MFL an active participant in the local campaign to the support the war. Two new library branches opened under her domain, and service was extended through a new Bookmobile.

Helen Farr also engaged Ralph Ulveling and Ruth Rutzen of the Detroit Public Library to undertake a complete analysis of MFL practices in 1952. The resulting Ulveling-Rutzen Survey was a turning point for the library, as has been noted earlier. Their recommendations eventually led to the transfer of financing and administration of the school libraries to the Board of Education, the appointment under her guidance of a new city librarian, Bernard Schwab, who eventually succeeded Helen Farr as Library Director, and the establishment of the first "Friends of the Library" organization in Wisconsin.

Helen Farr dramatically expanded the library's public visibility. Whereas Mary Smith had detested the press, Helen Farr worked with the newspapers, radio, and television to promote library services. She increased library publicity with weekly newspaper columns such as "Books New This Week" and the reference librarian’s challenge "Try to Stump Me." She helped develop a radio program with station WKOW, "The Classical Hour," that introduced records from the library collection, played interviews with authors, and ultimately stimulated the use of library records, scores, and books.

Helen Farr's administration was not without controversy, but under all circumstances she remained relentlessly committed to the pursuit of the policies she felt were in the best interests of the library. In 1938, she removed four pages of pictures depicting the birth of a child from Life Magazine because she thought it best to keep the deleted pages at the library desk rather than accessible to children. In 1953, when she was lambasted in the press for failing to purchase a book critical of Senator Joseph McCarthy, she remained steadfast in defending her position. Although one might disagree with her decisions in both of these instances, one can't help but admire her grit in the face of controversy.

Praise came to Helen Farr from many quarters. Her colleagues described her as "a gracious librarian with a wide knowledge and love of books" and neighbors as "not only a good citizen of Madison but a good world citizen." The letter from the Library Board to Helen Farr upon her retirement is a fitting summary of Helen Farr’'s importance in the development of the Madison library system:

"We thank you for devoting the best years of your energy, resourcefulness and perseverance to the Madison Free Library. We want you to contrast the institution you came to 21 years ago with what you now leave in the capable hands of your successor; a public library that is a respected and essential part of the city services….

The easy way, when you came here 21 years ago, would have been to maintain the status quo. Fortunately for all the citizens of Madison that was not your concept of duty. You faced the dismaying situation indomitably; you made a long range plan. And quietly, the revolution began."

Helen Farr's own words are perhaps the best way understand the philosophy guiding her librarianship. In February of 1949, the Wisconsin State Journal added a new Sunday book review page to the newspaper. Miss Farr was asked to write an introductory column explaining the value of such a book page. Approximately fifty years later, her article provides us with insights into her appreciation for books, her dismay with magazine writers and radio commentators whose brevity of presentation resonates of the media's "sound-byte" mentality today, and a window into the flavor of the times.

"Books: Lights in a Dark Storm," by City Librarian Helen E. Farr
Wisconsin State Journal, Febraury 6, 1949

This is the age of capsule world histories and thousand-page historical romances, of comic book renderings of the classics and snail-paced soap operas that endure for years.

Why, then, should a newspaper suddenly add a book page?

Probably, first of all, because there are still people who read books. They will welcome news of the latest publications, be interested in items about authors and publishers and follow reviews as guides to the selection of their personal reading.

But a book page can do more than cater to this group. It has a contribution to make in counteracting the powerful pressure toward superficiality that surrounds us all. The review page may attract to good books readers who might otherwise never open them.

There has, perhaps, never been a time when it was more vitally necessary that people should understand the forces that are shaping the future. News columns and news broadcasts must recount day-to-day happenings without providing perspective. All magazine writers and radio commentators are compelled to be brief, some speak with too much emotion, too much plausibility and too little basis in fact. The best of them have neither space nor time to develop for us the background from which they draw their conclusions.

Uncritical dependence upon these short cuts to opinion generates emotions about our public problems rather than sound understanding.

It is to books that we must look for the perspective to enable us to evaluate the day's events. The author of a book can not only develop his ideas against his own background but his conclusions may be weighted against the writings of others. Granted, some authors write unsound books.

But a book has a physical permanence which eventually defeats these writers.

Under the impression that the only way to read is to "curl up with a good book for a long afternoon" many busy people never learn the satisfactions books can give. Authors would starve and publishers go out of business if that delightful picture were accurate.

Fortunately, reading is habit forming. Today, one does one's reading in snatches, in all the odd periods of semi-leisure that occur in the course of the day. Once the habit is acquired, it is surprising how much one can read in a week or a month and how the broader background of reading illuminates the news of the day.

In his new book, Nightmare of American Foreign Policy, which perfectly illustrates his point, Edgar Ansel Mowrer says that "To understanding observers, the spectacle of world affairs out-classes in sheer excitement and suspense any detective story, soap opera, movie thriller or flying trapeze."

Bernard Schwab: To Reach as Many People in as Many Ways as Possible

 

Bernard SchwabWhen Bernard and Mona Schwab drove to Madison in 1954 for his job interview for the newly created position of assistant library director, they passed a sign on the highway for the "American Breeders Service." Having urban roots (he from Brooklyn, New York and she from Chicago, Illinois), the Schwabs wondered what it was that was being "bred" in Wisconsin and what was it that "they do here" in Wisconsin. Fortunately for the Madison Public Library and the entire Madison community, despite their "misgivings," the Schwabs elected to settle in Madison and within three years, Bernard succeeded Helen Farr and became the chief librarian, a position he would hold for twenty-seven years.

Bernard Schwab had a good sense of humor and the ability to laugh at himself. In an interview with the Wisconsin State Journal, for example, he described his first experience answering a reference question, which was "Do owls blink?"

"I was a city boy from New York, I'd never even seen an owl!" he laughs. "But I knew the Encyclopedia Americana was pretty good in the natural sciences, so I looked up owls, and found out their eyelids nictate. It's just like a blink, only it sounds fancier, and when I told the guy 'yes sir, owls nictate.' He was really impressed, and so was I."

Mr. Schwab, as he is still fondly and respectfully called by library staff who worked with him, believed that the purpose of the library was to reach as many people as possible, in as many ways as possible:

"Public libraries are one of the last strongholds of individuality in a civilization that is group oriented. Our task is to provide responsible access to a wide range of information, diverse opinion, and trends in expression to aid the individual in reaching his own conclusions, in his own manner, and with complete privacy." With these ends in mind, he led the transformation of the library from an institution with a small, outdated collection of books housed in a musty old building to a library opened to free use by all county residents and eventually the hub of a regional library service for outlying counties.

On October 2, 1990, nearly five months after his death, the Madison City Council voted to change the name of the central library to the Bernard Schwab Library. The resolution endorsing this change provides a good introduction to Bernard Schwab's many accomplishments:

"Under his tireless leadership, and with the help of many dedicated volunteers and workers, the small local facility he inherited grew, expanding his programs, branches, and services, to become the focal point of an outstanding regional library system. Bernard Schwab was a man of vision, who had the ability to marshal detailed facts and figures without losing sight of the horizon."

During his tenure as director, Schwab established the Dane County Historical Records Center, the Municipal Reference Service, and the Madison Area Library Council. The latter, which coordinated services and activities among the 200-plus libraries scattered throughout Dane County and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, exemplified his desire to maximize the efficient delivery of services: "It is essential in this small a community to know what each library has, and to work together," he explained.

Under his leadership, both the number of books in the system and the number of people using it increased dramatically. The number of items checked out by patrons grew from 250,000 in 1954 to more than two million in 1981. Five city library branches were added during his administration, and a new library at 201 W. Mifflin Street, Schwab’s dream project, opened in 1965 at a cost of $2.2 million. He also helped to create the first "Friends of the Library" group in Wisconsin.

Bernard Schwab broadened the definition of a library by turning it into a place where a patron could borrow not only books, but items ranging from typewriters to records. While these services are taken for granted today, it took a revolutionary transformation of philosophy to expand the notion of the library beyond its purpose of being solely in the business of providing "print" for patrons. He led the tenfold expansion of the phonograph record collection, and the addition of audiovisual and municipal video services, and even inaugurated a tool-lending service.

Mr. Schwab was the Wisconsin Library Association’s representative to the American Library Association (ALA) and on the ALA's joint committee on library service to labor. He wrote a monthly column on books and libraries for the Union Labor News and contributed to the Wisconsin Library Bulletin.

He is remembered as the man who fought successfully against censorship and police attempts to pry into library circulation records during the late 1960s and early 1970s. He said, "We oppose efforts by individuals and groups to limit the freedom of choice or to impose their standards or tastes upon the community at large."

While the accomplishments of Bernard Schwab are impressive, Schwab the man is even more admirable. Current and former staff members including librarians, library pages, and administrators speak of him with the utmost respect. He created a family-like work environment with high standards in which ideas flourished, good decision-making processes received his full-support (even when he opposed a particular policy), and the dignity of patrons and staff alike were maintained at all costs.

He was also a man possessing great compassion. As the only male staff member in the library when he first arrived in 1954, he often dealt with homeless people, sometimes drunk or smoking in the bathrooms. His wife Mona jokingly referred to him as "the usher of flushers" and "the dean of latrines." His son Bill said his father taught his children to have compassion for people in "this stage of life" and to treat them with respect. Bernard Schwab consciously planned the new library building to promote open access for all citizens and throughout his career consistently opposed rules that would restrict access to the library.

When Paul Soglin, the long-haired, "anti-establishment" alderman, was elected mayor in 1973, Bernard Schwab was one of people who paved the way for Soglin to act effectively in his new position. Schwab, one of the senior department heads in the city, spoke to other city department heads and helped to convince them that "we all serve the city" and "it is our job" to help the new mayor to succeed.

One of Bernard Schwab's proudest accomplishments was the planning and move into the new library building in 1965. Roger McMullen, one of the lead architects for the new library, and Schwab spent countless late nights designing the building over Schwab's kitchen table (coincidentally, McMullen lived across the street from the Schwabs). They’d take the information from meetings during the day and with great enthusiasm modify the plans during their night sessions. Along with Assistant Library Director Orrilla Blackshear, they traveled around the country researching the "state of the art" elements of libraries elsewhere so that they could plan the most modern library possible for Madison. They had the foresight to design a building with the ability to double its capacity in the future, a renovation currently being contemplated more than three decades later.

Schwab also was justifiably proud of the formation of the South Central Library System (SCLS). He worked with legislators, the state library system, and libraries throughout the state to create a system that would better serve people in a regional way. He persevered through the delay of the establishment of the SCLS from 1971 to 1975 because the Madison Library Board of Directors opposed and forestalled the development of that regional library system.

A modest man, he downplayed his role in helping the Madison Public Library fulfill the many purposes he set for it. "The reason the library has been so successful is the community. It didn't take a very bright library director to make it better. I just made a few changes, and the people took it from there."

In reporting on Bernard Schwab's selection as the Wisconsin Librarian of the Year in 1970, the Wisconsin State Journal capsulized the contributions he made to his adopted hometown, "Madison cannot help but be a better city for this man’s obsession with giving the people the best library he can give them, and making it so attractive they must use it."

The Measure of a Librarian

The innumerable improvements in MPL during Bernard Schwab's regime can be credited partially to the work of his collaborator, assistant library director Orrilla Blackshear. She shared in conceptualizing and implementing many of those changes and nurtured a spirit of excitement in the library's mission that inspired other staff members.

"It was the time of the book," a retired librarian nostalgically recalled. "Orrilla had everyone involved in book selections. There were weekly meetings to select books. You got to know each librarian’s book philosophies. And there was an egg timer to limit each speaker to three minutes. We exposed each other to new books. Morale was high. It was an exciting time."

When Orrilla Blackshear spoke on "The Measure of a Librarian" at the annual May Day Breakfast for the University of Wisconsin Library School on May 6, 1961, she described a high standard for librarianship that epitomized her own excellence. Respected and beloved by her peers, Orrilla's passion, competence, and versatility earned her the coveted Wisconsin Librarian of the Year award in 1962.

In 1957, Bernard Schwab became director of the Madison Public Library. He sought an assistant director who could help him realize his vision to improve and expand library service throughout the city. He recruited Mrs. Blackshear for the position having been impressed by her activities during the previous decade with the Wisconsin Free Library Commission and as the editor of the Wisconsin Library Bulletin. Their strong partnership would place the library on firm footing for the rest of the century.

Orrilla Blackshear's talents and interests were many. She boldly replaced out-of-date titles and battered copies of classics and proceeded to rehabilitate a failing collection. Her ability to stimulate and involve many librarians in the book selection process reflected her philosophy that reading should be a social activity: "I enjoy a book much more if I can discuss it with someone else," she said.

Within the first three years of her partnership with Bernard Schwab, the library offered a variety of new and improved services including providing duplicate copies of plays for play reading; film information service; music, language, and voice recordings; books with large print for older readers; and a greatly enlarged children's book collection.

Her commitment to promote libraries and books extended well beyond the library building. She discussed books and library services regularly on television, the radio, and before community groups, and encouraged MPL staff to do the same. She taught courses on book selection at the UW Library School. She was a president of the Wisconsin Library Association and editor of the Wisconsin Library Bulletin, edited the Buying List of Books for Small Libraries (1954) published by the ALA, contributed articles to the Wisconsin Library Bulletin as well as to the Union Labor News, and replaced August Derleth as book review columnist for the Capital Times.

Before, during, and after her employment with MPL, Mrs. Blackshear worked as a volunteer with elderly people. Early in her volunteer work she helped organize a recreational workshop for the aging, one of the first in Wisconsin. She spent considerable volunteer time insuring that retired people receive library materials. She prepared reading lists for the retired and provided them with materials on the subject of retirement.

"If it meant making a trip to the library, many of these elderly people would not read, so we bring books to their meetings. They check them out and bring them back the following meeting. I am convinced that the public library has a large part to play in the leisure time activities of the elderly and I am most interested in making sure these people receive the opportunity to use library materials." She also served as chairman of a planning committee for an institute that met in Washington, D.C., on library service for an aging population.

Orrilla Blackshear's award as Librarian of the Year honored her love and knowledge of books, her professional enthusiasm that inspired her coworkers, her excellence as a book selector, her enrichment of many lives in the guidance of reading, her efforts in integrating the services of the Madison Public Library into the daily life of the community, and her contributions to continuously improve public library service in the state.

Orrilla Blackshear respected the library profession and loved her work. At the time of her death, she was volunteer librarian of Oakwood Village, her retirement home for 15 years. In a biographical feature article under the heading "Know Your Madisonian" in the Wisconsin State Journal in 1960, she articulated her philosophy of librarianship, "The real joy for me in all this work is being able to bring the right people together with the right book." Peers and patrons alike certainly would attest to her lifelong success in achieving this goal.

Librarians as Political Activists: The Protest against Playboy and The Library Committee to End the War in Vietnam

MPL librarians' many activities counter the myth that librarians are mild-mannered, genteel, and apolitical. While some librarians undoubtedly fit these stereotypes, others are activists for social justice, committed feminists, and fearless public servants.

When libraries were first being developed in the American West, traveling librarians went by stage, horseback, train, and foot to do their duties. In 1915, library organizer Mabel Wilkinson spent two weeks on horseback taking the news of traveling libraries to settlers in Platte County, Wyoming. On her travels, she blazed away at rattlesnakes with a Colt .38 revolver, encountered mad bulls, and often began her travels as early as 2:30 a.m. to avoid the intense heat and electrical storms.

In 1974, the Wisconsin Library Association selected the Playboy Club in Lake Geneva as the site for its yearly convention. Many Madison Public Library librarians refused to attend the convention because of their objection to that particular site. In a letter to the leadership of the state association published in local newspapers, fourteen Madison librarians lambasted the inappropriateness of the Playboy site selection. Their strong protest statement is the antithesis of "mild-mannered, genteel, and apolitical" librarians:

From The Listening Post (a staff newsletter)
November 1974

Wisconsin librarians rely on their professional association for carefully thought-out leadership and policies. Many of us find the annual meeting to be the best occasion for interacting with the leadership and discussing these policies with our colleagues. This year, because of the ill-considered selection of the Playboy Club as the convention site, many of us have chosen not to attend. We find the choice of Playboy Club objecctionable for several reasons. The main ones are Playboy's longstanding sexist orientation. Members of a professional association expect that association to act in their best interests. Financial support of an institution trading on worn out stereotypes of womanhood is not in our best interests. The second reasons is the same that applied when the American Library Association chose Las Vegas as a convention site. Libraries and librarians are striving for public support and conventions held in sybaritic, plastic splendor strike a false note in the sincerity of our pleas for such support. We realize the convention planners wished to choose a spot that would be attractive and efficient for a large gathering. Regrettably, the Playboy Club, as an isolated resort, has none of the attractions of conventions held in large urban centers where members and exhibitors can enhance their convention meetings with many other experiences.

Sincerely,
Madison Area Librarians

We with[sic] to register our protest as expressed in the above letter

Rosalie Freitag, Ann Waidelich, Margaret Stephenson, Lee Hayden, Polly Timms, Vada Mayfield, Zo Kussow, Carol Froistad, Sue Koehler, Lesley Galway, Barbara Conaty, Arlene Marshall, Linda Risseeuw, Phil Sullivan.

MPL librarians' activism also has been connected to pressing social issues of the day unrelated to their library work. On October 7, 1969, twenty-nine staff members at MPL signed a petition urging their fellow employees to "support the October 15 moratorium against the war in Vietnam." This exhortation soon was heard well beyond the walls of the library.

The October 10, 1969, issue of the Capital Times was strewn with headlines and articles about mounting opposition to the war in Vietnam: "Viet Moratorium Support Mounting," "Laird's Son Will March in Protest," "Council Backs Moratorium," "More City, Campus Groups Join Moratorium." The latter headline included a sub-headline "Public Librarians Call for Immediate Withdrawal." The article continued, "Twenty-nine at the Madison Public Library urged fellow employees to attend anti-war workshops and to attend other activities scheduled throughout the day.

The librarians, who called for ‘the immediate unconditional withdrawal of all troops from Vietnam and self-determination for the Vietnamese people,’ said they would work half of the day, in order to keep library service open."

Of the twenty-nine who signed, thirteen actively participated in programs and discussion sessions concerned with the Moratorium and seven or eight did general leafleting on the Capitol Square and at an anti-war film shown in the library during the staff noon hours.

In the wake of the October 15 antiwar moratorium, members of the Public Library staff formed a Library Committee to End the War. Membership was "open to anyone involved in library service who is opposed to the war in Vietnam and who wishes to engage in education and action projects to end the war."

On December 12, an "Antiwar Poetry Reading on Vietnam," sponsored by the Library Committee to End the War was part of the December Moratorium was held at the First Unitarian Society.

In April, 1970, the Capital Times reported that "The Library Committee to End the War, an organization started in the Madison Public Libraries and expanding to all libraries in the city, has released a statement urging the people of Madison to vote "yes" on the April 6, antiwar referendum.

"The Library Committee to End the War firmly believes that the only way to end the war in Southeast Asia is to withdraw all of our forces now; that the only way to allow the peoples of Southeast Asia to determine their own destiny is to withdraw all of our forces now; that the only way to stop the killing of the Indochinese and the American GIs is to withdraw all of our forces now.’"

Clearly, a sizable group of Madison Public Librarians extended their vision of providing service to the public beyond the library into the realm of a social activism, attempting to eradicate oppression and injustice.

Above and Beyond the Call of Duty: The Librarian as an Author

Throughout the history of MPL, librarians have been actively involved in assorted activities related to the development of the library profession itself. Locally, librarians have shared information with other librarians, participated in cooperative ventures with university libraries and the State Historical Society Library, worked in a variety of ways with the University of Wisconsin Library School, and much more. On a statewide and national level, librarians have been participants and often leaders in activities related to the Wisconsin Library Association and the American Library Association.

One of the most admirable and perhaps surprising dimensions of the desire and capabilities of Madison public librarians to contribute to the library field has been the plethora of articles the librarians have written for professional publications. "Author" does not fit under the description of most library positions, and yet for more than one hundred years, librarian after librarian have indeed been authors whose works appeared in local newspapers, union newsletters, and library journals on a remarkably diverse range of topics. Their commitment to share the knowledge and the lessons gleaned from their work within MPL testifies to the broad vision they share as purveyors of information. A sampling of the titles of these articles followed by a poem by librarian/poet Elena Reyes is presented below.

1905

"Some Things the Madison Public Library Does", Hannah Ellis, Children's Librarian, Wisconsin Library Bulletin
1907

"Music in Libraries", Julia Hopkins, Wisconsin Library Bulletin

1915

"Growing Bulbs in the Library", Mary Smith, Wisconsin Library Bulletin
1918

"Children and Patriotism", Faith Allen, Children's Librarian, Wisconsin Library Bulletin
1924

"For Boys and Girls", Grace Aldrich, Children's Librarian, Wisconsin Library Bulletin
1930

"To You-A Teacher of Children in Madison", Mary Smith, Wisconsin Library Bulletin
1940,1941

"Library Notes" (regular column)- Esther Hianny, The Capital Times
1943

"Wisconsin Librarians: In Which Group Do You Belong?", Helen Farr, Wisconsin Library Bulletin
1944

"Outstanding Books on the War, 1943", Selected by Members of the Staff of the Madison Free Library, Wisconsin Library Bulletin
1960 Book review column, Orrilla Blackshear, The Capital Times
1961

"Reference Systems- A Review of the Literature", Dorothy Huston, Wisconsin Library Bulletin
1961

"The Measure of a Librarian", Orrilla Blackshear, Wisconsin Library Bulletin
1961

"Use Your Library", monthly column, Bernard Schwab, Union Labor News
1968


"Books for Adults: A Selection of Books that Interpret the Influences of Racial and Ethnic Groups on the Growth of the Nation."…", Ellen Erickson, Wisconsin Library Bulletin
1969

"Children's Librarians Reach Out", Claire Strelzoff, Wisconsin Library Bulletin
1970

"Looking Toward Release: Librarians and Inmates Discuss Social Issues", JoAnn Zamacona, Wisconsin Library Bulletin
1972

"Public Library Law's 100th Birthday", Georgia Voelker, Wisconsin Library Bulletin
1973

"Talking Books in Madison", Natalie Tinkham, Wisconsin Library Bulletin
1974

"Experiment with Cable TV", Kandy Brandt, Wisconsin Library Bulletin
1976

"Library Can Help You If You're Set for Canning", Ann Michalski, Wisconsin State Journal
1976

Wisconsin Authors and Their Books, Orrilla Blackshear, Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction publication
1977

"Get the Local Story: Municipal Reference Uses City and County Documents", Ann Waidelich, Wisconsin Library Bulletin
1984

"Development of Services to Homebound and Handicapped at MPL from 1961-1984- Margaret Stephenson, Wisconsin Library Bulletin
1995 "Marketing Youth Services", Barb Dimick, Library Trends
1996

"At the Reference Desk", Elena Reyes, Channel (newsletter for the Wisconsin Division for Libraries and Community Living)
1997

From Cover to Cover: Evaluating and Reviewing Children's Books, Kathleen T. Horning (HarperCollins)
1999

"New Short Stories for Older Readers", Tana Elias, Book Links

"At the Reference Desk," by Elena V. Reyes
Printed in Channel, February 1996

The white-haired woman in khaki pants
and dirty tennis shoes
dances toward us, hips swaying,
upright palms held out
as if to bless us
or to shield herself.

Her question takes us by surprise:
What is the cause of suffering? Uneasily
we look away as one of us
replies, "We don't
have the answer to that."

Smiling, she dances off.
In five minutes she's back. The fall
of emperors and kings - was that God's will?
We alre helpless before her needs,
nonswimmers caught beyond our depth.
We work the shallows here, glad to bring up
ready answers: How many ounces
in a liter? On what date does Easter
fall next year? The term for the morbid
fear of cats? We can find the distance
from Damascus to St. Paul
but cannot reach down deep enough
for what she wants to know:
How far is it to Hell?

In time we learn to anticipate
and parry the insistent questions: Did Hitler's
conscience bother him? Ed Gein's?
Jeffrey Dahmer's?
The answers come
with growing ease: "One certainly hopes so,
but it's hard to tell for sure." She turns away
and pauses, lost among realities
we cannot share. Back too soon,
she probes me with eyes as piercing
as the Ancient Mariner's. How do we know
the truth?
she asks. "I've been wondering
myself," I say.

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