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BORROWED TIME : Even as Closings Threaten, Libraries Continue to Open Minds

August 15, 1993|Wanda Coleman

As I trailed Pop into our neighborhood library, I was awed by the smells of lacquered wood and book leather. Other patrons read quietly while we waited at the counter manned by an elderly assistant whose glasses hung at her neck on a silver chain, like extra wattles. Fascinated, I watched her pinched, rouge mouth instruct us on applying for my first library card.

To the annoyance of the head librarian, watching discreetly, Pop, in work duds, curled up to catnap in an armchair. I happily lost myself in the stacks. I discovered William Hervey Allen, Earl Derr Biggers, Anton Chekhov and Mom's favorite, Mary Roberts Rinehart. I roused Pop, and we headed for checkout, where I presented my temporary card to the assistant.

"I'm sorry, young lady, but you can't check out these books on this card!"

"W-w-whattt?" I sputtered.

" Your card is valid only for the children's sections."

I was 10 years old. I looked at Pop. He shrugged. The head librarian steered me to shelves of thin books covered in glossy pastel paper boards. I settled for the small section for teens, rejecting the girls' books--heroic RNs, female sleuths, waifs coming of age--for the boys' section, loaded with delights by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Howard Pease and H. Rider Haggard. Again I headed for checkout.

"Sor-ry," crooned the assistant, "books in the girls' section only."

Pop insisted I obey the rules. Battling angry tears, I plucked randomly from the girls' shelf. I brooded all the way home, refusing defeat. Just before time to return my books, I took Pop aside.

"Daddy--would you get yourself a library card so I can check out adult books under your name?" Pop smiled, game. The next night, armed with his card, we browsed at will. During checkout, the assistant eyed us nastily but said nothing.

I've almost outgrown my suspicion of libraries as hostile-if-seductive environs where Western culture guards against us barbarians. Having one in the neighborhood, accessible to my children, is invaluable. Years ago, when we lived on 120th Street, I often took my kids to the A C Bilbrew Library.

The site of the Black Resource Center, it houses a significant black music collection and the Los Angeles Sentinel archives. Located on El Segundo, it's the only county library designed by an Afro-American, architect Vincent Proby, and named for an Afro-American, A C Bilbrew. Born in 1888, she died in L.A. in 1972. A C, her given name, was a film actress ("The Foxes of Harrow") and a choir director. She was the first black soloist on radio (1923) and hosted the first black music radio program, KGFJ's "The Gold Hour" (1940-42). She was an advocate of women's and children's rights ("Don't cry--qualify").

Worried that the Bilbrew might be among the libraries closed because of recent funding crises, I asked about the impact of cutbacks on South-Central. "Whenever there's a state budget crunch, we are always the first to be X'ed out," says Joyce Sumbi, a founding member of the California Librarians Black Caucus. Louise Parsons, the Black Resource Center librarian, agrees--adding that the closures will affect her job and all of Southern California, where the largest number of minority librarians are employed. So far, the Bilbrew has been targeted for shortened hours.

Sumbi complains that circulation figures trotted out to justify the cutbacks inaccurately reflect library use. "Where will our children go?" she asks. "If books aren't checked out, they don't show up on the stats," which don't account for businessmen catching up on current affairs during lunch or students doing homework.

As I leave the Felipe de Neve city library on 6th, I notice a Latino man in his work duds. He sits awkwardly in an armchair near the children's section. I laugh. He reminds me of Pop and our long-ago adventure. It looks strangely funny to see a grown man reading from a thin book covered in glossy pastel paper boards. He's slowly, silently mouthing the words. I'm impressed! He's not just reading, he's teaching himself to speak English.

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