The Sprague House Branch Library
It was a two story white bungalow indistinguishable from the others in the neighborhood; one that any one of us might have called home. Three cement steps led to the front door. There were windows (even cellar ones), weathered sides, a steep roof, houses close on both sides and an alley that led to the rear. But it was not just any neighborhood house. It was our library. And we did call it a home.
The Sprague House Branch Library on Armington Avenue in Providence was very welcoming, and once a week it was more than just going in to read a book or borrow one. It was the after school story hour with the librarian that I loved almost as much as I loved my former kindergarten teacher.
It was so good to have a library one block away, especially one that made me feel as if I were entering my own home. And being only two blocks from my elementary school, Academy, I stopped on many days after school.
I opened the door to a narrow, carpeted, dark hall with book laden shelves to the ceiling on each side. The books, so neatly stacked in rows, hugged the walls and extended out, making the path so tight that it was difficult to pass someone coming the other way. My fingers made a rat-ta-tat tat sound as I ran them along the hard covers. The musty smells of wood, oil, leaves and dampness reminded me of my cellar. I walked (ran on story hour day) down the narrow hallway and then bounded up a few more oily and creaky wooden stairs that led to a larger, more open room which had tables and a sign out desk. The tables smelled different, kind of like one of the big old neighborhood trees that I used to climb. The undersides of the tables had hard lumps of gum stuck to them (I swallowed my Double Bubble). Only a little light could filter through the side windows that were blocked by the nearby houses. There was a quiet, slow turning ceiling fan which was not enough to cool in the summer. Sitting at a desk near another door, maybe behind a glass, was the head librarian, but I paid little attention to her. I was looking for the one who told the stories.
On a usual day, I sat at one of the tables and found a book to read or to thumb through. It was difficult to be quiet, maybe the most difficult thing I ever had to do, especially when friends were nearby.
“Quiet please,” the head librarian would say. Her voice was so gentle, so soft, I suppose because she had white hair and peered over clear glasses. She was kinda nice I think, not frightening, so that’s why we were ready to resume our laughing and talking as soon as she went back to her desk. Sometimes the laughing was uncontrollable and, most of the time, I didn’t know why. Everything was funny…a look, a cough, an exaggerated sniffle, a girl with pigtails, a funny looking kid, a gas emission or a burp. There were those lucky guys who could burp repeatedly. What a great skill! Tears of uncontrollable laughter rolled down my cheeks as I buried my head in the table. On occasion the librarian tiptoed over and said, “I think it would be better if you were not in the library today.” She was so patient and kind.
On story day, things were different. There was no way I was going to misbehave. As I entered the main room I looked to the right just to be sure there would be a story hour. Relief! There would be a story hour! In the corner, a quieter place partially hidden by a shelf of books was a bunch of little chairs arranged like a half moon and, in front of them, was a large wooden chair. Our chairs were small but not too small. My feet touched the floor and I could put my elbows on the arm rests. I was the first to sit, and I watched as other kids entered and sat. We waited without saying a word. She entered. When I saw her, I leaned to the edge of my chair, ready to hear another story. She sat. Her hair was so pretty. She smiled and raised her eyebrows
“Good afternoon, children.” What a nice voice.
“Good afternoon, Miss____.”
“Are you ready for story hour?” Her face was soft. She did not wear glasses.
“Yes, Miss ____.”
“What would you like to hear today?” she folded her hands in her lap and crossed her legs.
Frozen, no one answered. We didn’t know what we wanted to hear, but she never failed. Her stories kept us glued to our seats because she took us to places of wonder, surprise and special endings with characters we wanted to be, or avoid.
Was Snow White as beautiful and as fair as the snow? How great it must have been to be a dwarf. And how would Rapunzel get out of that tower? Oh, what a happy ending. And the tiger chasing Sambo turned to butter? Great, because I was so frightened for Sambo. But no one frightened me more than the Giant that was chasing Jack and all for a goose who laid golden eggs! Oh boy was his mother mad when Jack showed her the beans! Three little pigs? A wolf that dressed like a grandmother? A boy whose nose grew when he lied?
When story hour ended, I went home thinking of nothing else; so pleased, so eager for the next week.
As the years went by, I outgrew story hour and the books outgrew the Sprague House Branch which closed, moved up the street and became the Mt. Pleasant Branch Library. Though there was no more story hour for me, not much else changed. There still were the books; great stories like “Deerslayer,” “Huckleberry Finn,” “Tom Sawyer,” “The Last of the Mohicans,” “Punt Formation” and “Lou Gehrig: Pride of the Yankees.” Nor did the rules change. No talking, no laughing, no gum, a fine for late returns. And when we broke the rules, that same gentle head librarian, Mrs. B___, who also moved to the new library, politely told us what she expected.
But there was one important thing so very different. I never saw the story hour librarian again. I heard that the story hour was held in the basement of the new library, but I never checked.
I was thinking of how important a role libraries have played in my life, a role that continues. What a wonderful resource, even today, when I asked the reference librarian for information about the Sprague House Branch Library, and overnight, I had an answer.
Our neighborhood library, replete with history and stories one block away, was an integral part of my life, introducing me to the love of books, story hour and the librarian. How very grateful I am.