In April 1999, I asked Linda Olson, Head of Children's Services for the Madison Public Library (MPL), if there was anything noteworthy going on in the library. I'd been performing storytelling programs for the library for many years and always found Linda to be a good source of ideas for new programs to create. She said, "There's nothing in particular happening right now, but next year is the one hundred and twenty-fifth anniversary of the founding of the library and all sorts of activities will take place in May 2000."
After a brief discussion, we agreed that I would put together a library-related performance for kids to present as part of the anniversary celebrations.
As I began to consider what to include in the performance, I thought that it would be interesting to try to find stories about children drawn from the history of MPL. I began to read the library records and quickly realized that there was a second show in the material, a performance for adults of stories from the library's history. I approached Linda with this idea, and she referred me to Ann Michalski, Reference and User Services Coordinator, as well as the anniversary celebration coordinator. Ann was enthusiastic about my proposal, as was Barb Dimick, Director of MPL. We agreed to plan a series of performances for adults as another part of the festivities.
The more I explored the stories from MPL's history, the more excited I became about the research. As a professional storyteller for nearly two decades, I'd become a collector of stories. If I heard or read a good story, I learned and performed it or filed it until the opportunity arose to use it. I was amazed at how many fascinating stories there were in MPL's history. The more I looked, the more I found. The more I found, the more I wanted to look some more. Incidents tangential to the stories I was pursuing sometimes led me to explore new stories. I became a historical detective seeking missing puzzle pieces from the library's past.
Eventually, I realized that I had uncovered so many interesting stories that I could offer MPL one hundred and twenty-five stories to post on their web page for the one hundred and twenty-five days leading up to the May 31, 2000, anniversary date. Again, Ann and Barb were delighted; I researched and wrote the stories, and they appeared on the web page. In the midst of those one hundred and twenty five days, Ann, Barb, and I independently concluded that the stories were too good to let them disappear once the anniversary had passed. We wanted to preserve the stories, which is how this book came into being.
As an undergraduate, I majored in history and wrote a senior thesis on "The History of Radical Student Movements at the University of Wisconsin-Madison." I continued my post-graduate studies in education, became a high school teacher, and eventually a Professor of Education. I was trained as an academic, but switched to a career as an entertainer in 1982. When I made this change, I contentedly thought my studies in history - days of serious writing, and writing of serious days - were over. I was wrong.
Working on this project has rekindled my fascination with history and wed it with my interest in storytelling. Fusing the two into a coherent book, I discovered, presented many unforeseen problems. As a storyteller, I look for good stories. As a historian, I try to identify what's important. In writing this book, I've found that many good stories are unimportant and many important stories are uninteresting. The entertainer in me reigns supreme, and so I've opted to include what I consider to be the good stories. However, the responsible historian in me still breathes and hence I've included some stories that fail to pass the "fascinating story litmus test," but provide important historical information about the library that I feel compelled to share lest these tales disappear altogether.
I've also discovered that the library has both a strong physical and psychological presence in the community. The Central Library always has been located in the hub of downtown Madison within one block of the State Capitol. This is no coincidence. Situating the public library in the core of the city is an integral element in the quest to develop a municipality characterized by intellectual and cultural excellence.
My conversations about the book with friends, family, and other people also have made me recognize the important place the public library holds in people's minds. Mention of chronicling stories from MPL's history consistently provoked unsolicited and often effusive praise for the library. It was as if I'd said "Open Sesame" and the door opened to a repository of tributes that had been lying dormant waiting to be liberated.
As a performer, I've learned that stories affect people's lives in ways I can't and no longer attempt to predict. As a writer, I hope that the stories that follow will entertain you, enlighten you, and enrich your appreciation for libraries in general and for the Madison Public Library in particular. Enjoy.
NOTE: The official name for the library was the "Madison Free Library" until 1958 when it was changed to "Madison Public Library." I shall refer to the library both as the Madison Free Library (MFL) and Madison Public Library (MPL) depending upon which was the appropriate name for the library for the particular story under consideration. The story behind this change of name is included in Chapter 2.