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Library Story: Mrs. Smith, Memories of the Alfred Dickey Free Library

Mary Jo
Mary Jo is a 1964 graduate of Jamestown High School. She lives in Iowa City, Iowa with her husband John. She enjoyed a long career as a librarian in the Iowa City Schools and as an adjunct professor in the school of Library and Information Sciences at the University of Iowa. She still likes to read and travel. She and John travel to London to visit with daughter Jyl, her English husband, and two teenage grandsons.

A librarian at the Alfred Dickey Free Library, whom I knew only as Mrs. Smith, made a profound difference in my young life. I discovered reading at an early age, likely because my parents enjoyed reading to me. One of my best memories is of my dad reading Little Black Sambo to me, with great enthusiasm and humor. While that book is considered somewhat politically incorrect today, I believe my dad thought only that it was a book about a young boy who outsmarts the opposition because he loves pancakes. My dad loved pancakes, too.

While my parents bought books for me as they were able, that was not so easy to do in the Jamestown of the time. No Amazon, you see!! So I was thrilled to discover the library after we moved to Jamestown in 1955 when I was nine years old.

Designed by a student of Louis Sullivan (something I’ve discovered only recently), the building has a beautiful Prairie-style appearance, with the two-level features common to many libraries of the time: children’s room, offices and technical services on the lower level, and the adult collection and reading room above. And so, for a time my library experience consisted of turning to the left upon entering the library and descending the stairs to the children’s room. Children were not allowed upstairs until the age of 12 or 14 And, at the time, children’s book collections were very limited. I quickly read my way through the books that interested me on the lower level.

Enter Mrs Smith. One day, I marshaled my courage and ascended the steps to stand before the imposing oak desk in the center of the upstairs portion of the library. And there, behind that massive desk, sat a petit woman with a lovely smile—Mrs. Smith. After a nervous question or two on my part, she made it clear that I was very welcome to read the ”upstairs books”—the adult collection. And there a whole new world opened to me—Austen, Alcott, the Brontes, Dickens, DuMaurier and controversial “new” authors like Steinbeck and Pearl Buck. I could read anything I wanted, and Mrs Smith and her colleagues had selected a fine collection for the Jamestown library. Mrs Smith was always willing to help me find “the next book.” I read so much, and I don’t remember my choices ever being questioned at the checkout desk.

Eventually I became a librarian, too. I cannot say that Mrs. Smith was directly responsible, but surely the love of reading and libraries that she supported played a role. Some of Mrs. Smith’s family still live in Jamestown and should be very pleased at the role she played in my life and surely that of many other Jamestown residents.

“The only thing that you absolutely have to know, is the location of the library.” ― Albert Einstein

“Your library is your paradise.” ― Erasmus

“Whatever the cost of our libraries, the price is cheap compared to that of an ignorant nation.” ― Walter Cronkite

“Librarians are the coolest people out there doing the hardest job out there on the frontlines. And every time I get to encounter or work with librarians, I’m always impressed by their sheer awesomeness.” ― Neil Gaiman

“(Public) libraries should be open to all—except the censor. ― John F. Kennedy

“Libraries raised me.” ― Ray Bradbury
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