As we celebrate National Library Week, I encourage you to reflect upon the enchantment which attaches to certain books. Book lovers know the value of a good book; how it may inspire, challenge, foreshadow and, in other ways, impact lives. However, even book lovers acknowledge that sometimes a book is more than just a book.
The embossed book plate bore the words, “Sioux City Public Library, Sioux City, IA” and the inscription read “From the Children of Sioux City, Iowa to the Children of Lund, Sweden.” All in all, it was pretty straight forward, but I still had no answer for my friend, Nancy’s question – “Does your library often give books away to other libraries?” It wasn’t an unheard of practice then, and it continues today. However, this exchange involved a heartland city of approximately 75,000 and similarly-sized city in southern Sweden. Actually, I wondered how Nancy had happened upon that particular book. Or to paraphrase a classic, “Of all the books in all the libraries in all the world,” how did she pull that one off the shelf?
Nancy and I had been friends since college. My goal was to finish grad school and land a job in a college or university library. Nancy was finishing up her degree in education, but also planned to enter graduate school and earn her degree in library science.
As it happened, we were both side tracked. After graduation, Nancy married, temporarily put her career on hold and moved with her husband to Lund, Sweden where he pursued his post-doctorate work. My first job after graduate school was not in an academic library, but rather as the Young Adult librarian at the Sioux City Public Library. I was working there when I received Nancy’s letter.
My direct supervisor, Ella Lauritsen, was the Assistant Director and in charge of Children’s services for the entire library system. By the time I met her, Ella had served that library for nearly 40 years and was nearing retirement. She was of Danish heritage and her pride in her ancestry lead her to make almost annual trips to Denmark. In my mind, it seemed logical that perhaps on one of these trips, she had taken the ferry across to Malmo, Sweden, boarded the train to Lund and had bestowed gifts to several libraries along the way. For all I knew she traveled around all of Scandinavia presenting books to various libraries on each trip. But when exactly would that have been? At the time, the book in question was over 40 years old (and is now nearly 70). Anyone, Ella, or someone prior to her, could have sent or taken the book to Sweden.
Many years earlier, 1941, in particular, Robert McCloskey published a children’s book, Make Way For Ducklings. The book, for those who aren’t familiar with it or can’t recall the plot, relates the story of a Mother duck who parades her baby ducklings across the Boston Public Gardens and is assisted by a kindly policeman who stops traffic for them. The book won the Caldecott Medal, became a beloved classic and has delighted many generations of children, both in this country and around the world. Even today, one may view the charming statues of the duck family in Boston Public Gardens.
Yet when I asked her about the book, Ella was stumped. And, as it turned out, she didn’t carry armfuls of books around the world to other libraries. She deliberated on how and when this title had ended up in Sweden. She also asked me how I had learned of it.
As I mentioned earlier, Nancy had put her career on hold while in Sweden. As a young mother, she often took her baby for walks. Also, because her plans were to become a children’s librarian, she thought it would be interesting to explore some of the children’s books at the local library. She had enjoyed reading Make Way For Ducklings as a child and was pleasantly surprised when she found the book on the shelf of the children’s section. The book, after all, had been translated into several languages. What startled her was that this specific book was in English and bore the aforementioned book plate.
What made this situation all the more fluky was that I was in the midst of planning a trip to Lund in order to visit Nancy and her family. In the days before internet access and cell phone availability, all negotiations had to be done by airmail letter or phone. Because Nancy had no telephone, arrangements had to be made sufficiently in advance (again by letter) in order to ensure that she would be near a phone, should I call. When I received this particular letter, I had expected it to include further plans and directions, but not a mystery that seemed to foreshadow the plans of two fairly unexceptional young women.
I never actually found an answer to her question. Ella thought there may once have been, years before, an international children’s literature conference which had been held in Lund and that her predecessor had attended. We could never validate this. The predecessor was deceased and no one at the library actually recalled any literature conference. It probably didn’t matter. I have chosen to suspend evidence-based reality and, instead, embrace a more ephemeral explanation involving serendipity, kismet and karma. Yes, sometimes a book is just a book and yet… .