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664: The Room of Requirement

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Prologue: Prologue

Ira Glass

A man walks into the main branch of the San Francisco Public Library one Monday earlier this month. He's a balding gentleman named John Peters, and he's looking for books by the Marxist political theorist, Antonio Gramsci.

John Peters

He's an Italian radical. And what I'm seeing is everything has been taken out several years ago. I'm wondering, are these stolen? Or has somebody-- and I know of one case of this-- deliberately not wanted people to see these books?

Ira Glass

If this is a conspiracy to suppress the 20th century's greatest theorist of cultural hegemony, it is not a very effective conspiracy. It takes the helpful librarian less than two minutes to find, on the shelves of the fourth floor, a book of Gramsci's selected political writings.

Librarian 1

So here's the call number. So that's how you find it on the shelf, OK?

John Peters

OK.

Ira Glass

Five of us went to libraries around the country that day, according to the reference desk. And one of the things that we found everywhere were even-tempered, unflappable librarians. Like at the Palo Verde Public Library in Phoenix, a library user named Cindy, in a maroon sweatshirt and fanny pack, broke into song to get the librarian to understand exactly which Amy Grant Christmas album she wanted.

Librarian 2

No.

Cindy

(SINGING) Mary, did you know that your baby boy--

Librarian 2

Oh, I've heard the song.

Ira Glass

That same day on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana, at the Medicine Spring Library, a woman asked the librarian, Aaron Lafromboise, if they have anything on the Motokiks, the traditional women's society in the tribe.

Aaron Lafromboise

You know, I don't know if there's anything actually written about Motokik.

Woman

Yeah.

Aaron Lafromboise

Yeah, one of my aunties is in there. And so when I got my Indian name, she sang me an honor song from the Motokiks. So it was really amazing.

Woman

Really?

Aaron Lafromboise

So I'm thinking you might have to search a little more.

Ira Glass

They look for books together and don't find much. The books are written mostly by non-natives and men, which can I say? Good example of cultural hegemony.

Same afternoon, on the other side of the country in the Jackson Heights branch of the Queens Public Library in New York City, upstairs in the children's section, high school kids hide out on the floors of the stacks. A teenager by the computers downloads an immigration form, I suppose, for her parents. This is, everybody says, the most ethnically-mixed neighborhood in Queens, with books in English, Spanish, Chinese, Korean Urdu, Hindi, and more. Two happily confident third graders, named Katherine and Adam, friends from the libraries after school program, Stacks, walk up to the librarian with a request.

Adam

I want to know that any books have words but no pictures.

Librarian 3

Yes. Words but no pictures?

Adam

Yeah.

Librarian 3

Most of our books have at least a little picture.

Ira Glass

Even the chapter books have drawings at the start of each chapter, the librarian explains. The kids let her know that this is acceptable. Not ideal, but acceptable.

Adam

I want to have a book with a challenge reading because-- do you know I'm almost fifth grade?

Katherine

No, you're third grade. How can you be almost fifth grade?

Librarian 3

OK, here, this book might be--

Adam

But I want a really challenge. I want a challenging one. And I think I know there's a one here. Can you go to the front over there?

Ira Glass

He marches the librarian towards the books for older kids. Best as I can figure out, Adam somehow got it into his head that day that he had just had it with picture books. And as soon as he said this, Katherine was like, oh, me too. Though once Adam walked away, she told me it was her own independent decision.

Katherine

It's that now that I'm bigger, I don't want to really have more pictures. I want to mostly just use my imaginations for reading.

Ira Glass

People use the library for so much more than books, though. In just that one Monday, the five of us who went out to record, we witnessed a woman printing out fliers to find her lost dog. We witnessed old people getting help with their email. One librarian told me that in her job, you really get in touch with just how many people really do not know how to use computers at all.

We saw a homeless guy research apartments he might be able to afford. We heard about power tools you could check out to do your home improvements when you have a place and lights for seasonal affective disorder you can check out. A library got on the phone and then arranged for a patron to get a new walker and get it delivered to him.

Librarian 4

Will you be there between 5:00 and 7:00 tonight?

Man

Yes.

Librarian 4

Yes. 5:00 and 7:00 tonight works.

Ira Glass

The librarian from suburban Detroit that I spoke with, Annie Spence, described libraries the best, I thought.

Annie Spence

I always say that it's the only place-- well, it's one of the last places you can go that you don't have to buy or believe in anything to come in. You can just come, and we'll help you, no matter what your question is. We'll try to figure it out with you.

Ira Glass

In the Harry Potter books, there's this place called the Room of Requirement. The way it works is you walk three times in front of this certain patch of wall at Hogwarts, thinking, like, I really need a coffee. And then suddenly in that room a coffee shop will appear. Or, I need a place to make my magic potion in secret, and then a room with all the ingredients for your magic potion will appear.

Libraries are like that. But in real life. That's what they do. And today on our program, we have stories of very unlikely uses for these Rooms of Requirement, all driven by people who want something very, very specialized. Something which, in every single story in today's show, the library is able to deliver. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Stay with us.

Act One: In Praise of Limbo

Ira Glass

Act One, In Praise of Limbo. So we start our show today with a library in a very unusual place, and with people who want something very unusual from that library. Zoe Chace explains.

Zoe Chace

The library sits on the border between Canada and the US. I mean, literally on the border. Like there's a faded black line running along the floor to show you which country you're in. The books are mostly in Canada. The front door is in America. So entering from the US is easy.

But if you're coming from the Canadian side, to get to the door, you have to venture for about 20 yards into American territory on an American sidewalk. How can you tell you've crossed over? Flower pots. A row of flower pots. Yeganeh Torbati is a Reuters reporter who was there recently.

Yeganeh Torbati

So the flower pots are there to demarcate the border between the United States and Canada.

Zoe Chace

It's just-- it's like, sorry, we just have to show you that this little line exists, but we're trying to make it as sweet as possible.

Yeganeh Torbati

And in the spring, those flower pots are blooming, and it's quite beautiful. Of course, when I was there, it was quite dead. So it's really just a line of flower pots with dirt in them.

Zoe Chace

The place is kind of famous, gets tourists. When Barack Obama was speaking during a state visit from the Canadian Prime Minister, he mentioned the library as this harmonious symbol of Canadian-US ties. A library is an inherently welcoming place. Its whole ethos is this is for everybody. That's the spirit of this library in two countries at once.

That's not why we're talking about it, though. We're talking about something happening inside the library that's making things kind of tense. That's why Yeganeh was there. She covers immigration. She's been writing about the travel ban since January 2017. And the list of countries has changed as the ban has changed. But Iran? Iran has always been on the list of banned countries.

There are a lot of Iranian students in the US here on single-entry visas. Single-entry means if they leave, they can't just turn around and re-enter. They can't go home to see their families. And because of the travel ban, their families can't visit them here, so there's no way for them to see each other. But Iranians can get to Canada, and this library is in Canada. And Iranian students in America can get to this library because this library is also in America.

So that's what they've been doing, meeting at this library in two countries at once. Yeganeh went up there and waited outside the library on a Saturday morning.

Yeganeh Torbati

Almost immediately, this woman walked in, who herself was an Iranian student. And she was dressed for the winter weather and in a winter coat. And she looked kind of anxious, and I could kind of tell that she's Iranian. And so I started talking to her, and she said that yes, indeed, she was trying to meet her parents.

Zoe Chace

They spoke in Persian. Yeganeh is Iranian-American, actually. Her parents came here as students.

Yeganeh Torbati

And I had earlier saw her being questioned by US border patrol agents. And so I asked her what had happened in those interactions because I had heard that border patrol agents were objecting to these reunions and were at times trying to stop people from carrying them out. But she said that they questioned her, they examined her documents, and they asked her if she was here to see her family. And she said yes, and they said great, that's very normal. A lot of people do it. And they let her into the library.

And then maybe about 10, 15 minutes after she first arrived, I kind of hear this bit of commotion. The door of the library is like pretty creaky, and old, and kind of noisy. And these three or four people come in. We were in the second reading room, furthest from the door. And you just see this woman in a headscarf and a winter coat, and she just starts rushing in.

And her daughter gets up from the table where I was sitting with her and walks over to her really quickly, and they just embrace. And immediately, tears are flowing. And it's just this really intense and very intimate and private moment. But there was no loud crying. There was no sobbing. There was no loud talking

Zoe Chace

Yeah because it's in the library.

Yeganeh Torbati

[LAUGHS] Yeah. It's just this subdued environment, and they're trying to-- they're both expressing all their emotions, but also trying to fit them into the space.

Zoe Chace

Around this family are kids with headphones on, on computers, parents with kids in the children's reading room. All the library stuff is happening. The librarians stay out of the way, which seems like an acquiescence to these meetings, but there are these new signs up around lately. No eating, no packages, and no family meetings.

Yeganeh heard that the US and Canadian authorities had threatened to shut the library down, and she asked them about it. The Canadians denied it. The US had no comment.

In the library, Yeganeh sees families ignore the signs. This student flew from Michigan. Her family came from Iran for only a few hours together. It seems crazy.

Yeganeh Torbati

And then around, I want to say 11:00, another Iranian family entered.

Zoe Chace

It's been three years since this mother has seen her son. She and her husband come in with their other son, who lives in Canada now. He and his brother look like twins.

These parents have been visiting their son in Canada for weeks. And all this time, they've been trying to figure out, is there any way we can see our other son who lives in Ohio? They couldn't solve it, but just before the parents were scheduled to fly back to Iran, they heard about the library, and everyone rushed there for a few hours.

Yeganeh Torbati

That was also really emotional. I didn't see the exact moment of their embrace, but I saw their goodbye. And that was very difficult to watch.

Zoe Chace

What happened?

Yeganeh Torbati

So the brother who's living in the United States, he hugged his mother, and you can just see him sobbing into her shoulder. Then they separate, and she has this very tear-stained face and is putting her coat and scarf back on. And then he hugs his father and, again, buries his face in his shoulder. And the father, I heard him say to his son, take care of yourself. Please take care of yourself.

Zoe Chace

A lot of these families talk every day, multiple times a day. Like they know exactly how the other person is doing, what's going on in their life. But still, they fly, rent a car, drive to the border. Shirin Estahbanati, another student, drove up from New York to see her parents who'd flown from Iran. Reuters put up a video of her interview about the visit.

Shirin is this glowing, young face. Her emotions are just written right across it. Her dad had had a heart attack recently. She was so anxious to see him.

Shirin Estahbanati

I don't know. The time I was just hugging my parents, I was thinking, I wish I could stop all clocks all over the world. I can't explain how tough it was, especially about my dad. I thought even he is shorter than the time I left. I don't know. The time he met me, he started smelling me, and he was like, I miss your smell. So-- [SNIFFLES]

Zoe Chace

I'd been thinking of the idea of this show, of libraries as the magical Room of Requirement from Harry Potter. I think this is exactly that. Like imagine these Iranian students in America, thinking, I need a magical place that is somehow in America but also outside it. It seems like an impossible one. It's like a very particular only at this time in America would this exact requirement exist. And a room appeared, a reading room.

Ira Glass

Zoe Chace, who's one of the producers of our show.

Act Two: Book Fishing In America

Ira Glass

Act Two, Book Fishing in America. OK, so our program today, of course, is about people who want libraries to satisfy some very deep, and sometimes, very idiosyncratic desires. And the people in this act, they wish for a library that can give them something that only ever existed inside the pages of a book. Sean Cole, tell us what happened.

Sean Cole

There's this book I've always really loved, a novel by Richard Brautigan. If you haven't heard of him, he was a really funny, almost surreal, hippyish writer in the '60s and '70s, probably best known for the book, Trout Fishing in America, a very short and deeply experimental piece of fiction, part travelogue, part fever dream. It's what made people cultish about Brautigan. A kid who went to my college legally changed his name to Trout Fishing In America.

But the novel I'm talking about is lesser known. It's called The Abortion, subtitle, An Historical Romance 1966. And it's not so much the story that gets me. It's the setting. It takes place in a library in San Francisco. But instead of coming to take books out of the library, people come to submit unpublished books they've written to the library, forever.

The books are there to stay. They can bring a book in anytime. The library never closes. And the librarian-- there is only one-- is always there to greet them. He lives at the library, and he's the narrator of the story.

This is from the first chapter. The librarian says, "We don't use the Dewey decimal classification or any index system to keep track of our books. We record their entrance into the library in the Library Contents Ledger, and then we give the book back to its author, who is free to place it anywhere he wants in the library, on whatever shelf catches his fancy.

It doesn't make any difference where a book is placed because nobody ever checks them out and nobody ever comes here to read them. This is not that kind of library. This is another kind of library."

The librarian is reflexively polite and effusive. He might say to someone, "I don't think we have a book like this in the entire library. This is a first." He puts people at ease. He says, "My clothes are not expensive but they are friendly and neat and my human presence is welcoming."

Eventually, a woman comes in with a book, and she's very beautiful. They fall in love. She gets pregnant, but they're not ready to have a child. So because this takes place in 1966, the two of them travel to Mexico to get an abortion, which is why the novel is called The Abortion. But just the spectacle of this library, it's hilarious, and heartbreaking, and democratic, and other-dimensional all at the same time.

Brautigan imagined a great anonymous wash of humanity marching through, with a lot on its mind. Kind of the Utopian ideal of the public square, except completely silent, all written down on rows and rows of unread books. The librarian says the main purpose of the library is, quote, "to gather pleasantly together the unwanted, the lyrical and haunted volumes of American writing." And when you talk to other people who've read The Abortion, the conversation usually winds its way to this one chapter.

Todd Lockwood

"The 23?"

Sean Cole

"The 23." [LAUGHS]

Todd Lockwood

Yeah.

Sean Cole

This is Todd Lockwood, a photographer and music producer in Burlington, Vermont. I'll tell you why I got in touch with him in a minute. "The 23" is essentially a list of all 23 books that came into the library this one particular day, by little kids, old people. And the chapter's made up of just little descriptions of the 23 books that the librarian wrote down in his ledger.

There's one called It's the Queen of Darkness, Pal, a science fiction novel written by sewer worker. There's a book called Leather Clothes and the History of Man, which is somehow entirely made of leather. Not just the binding, but the pages. Richard Brautigan himself comes into the library with a book called Moose. And a doctor comes in looking, quote, "doctory and very nervous," with a book entitled The Need for Legalized Abortion.

I asked Todd what some of his favorites were, and he pointed to this one.

Todd Lockwood

Just the title alone is just wonderful. It's called Bacon Death by Marcia Patterson. "The author was a totally nondescript young woman except for the look of anguish on her face. She handed me this fantastically greasy book and fled the library in terror. The book actually looked like a pound of bacon. I was going to open it and see what it was about, but I changed my mind. I didn't know whether to fry the book or put it on the shelf.

Being a librarian here is sometimes a challenge."

Sean Cole

Todd first read The Abortion when it came out in the early '70s. A friend of his gave it to him with a little inscription that said, "This book will change your life."

Todd Lockwood

And that turned out to be more than prophetic.

Sean Cole

He ended up reading it about once a year for the next 15 years.

Todd Lockwood

And every time I'd read it, I'd get the same feeling from it. First thing I would say to myself is, when is somebody going to build this library? When is somebody going to do this? To eventually becoming, when am I going to do this?

Sean Cole

A real life library for unpublished books submitted by their authors. A home for anything anyone felt a burning need to express, or explain, or somehow get off their chests. Todd dreamed for years about one day creating a place like that. And there was clearly a desire for it.

In The Abortion, Brautigan gives an address for his fictional library. 3150 Sacramento Street, San Francisco, California, 94115, which is the real life address of the Presidio branch of the San Francisco Public Library. So for a while, people were actually sending their unpublished manuscripts there and had to be informed, this is not that kind of library. This is a normal kind of library

Anyway, Todd kept putting off his dream, thinking, I'll put that library together someday. And then two things happened, the first one being very tragic.

Todd Lockwood

My sister died in a plane crash--

Sean Cole

Oh, my God.

Todd Lockwood

--in 1989. This was the United DC-10 that went down in Sioux City, Iowa. So losing a sibling is one of those things that really causes you to look at the things that you've done in your life and ask yourself, are these really the best things I can be doing right now? And so at any rate, about a month and a half or two months after the crash, I thought, you know what? I need to just get away from this constant sorrow here and take myself to the movies.

Sean Cole

And there was this movie that had come out earlier that year that Todd hadn't seen yet, a Kevin Costner vehicle about an Iowa farmer who plows up his corn to build a baseball diamond.

Man

(WHISPERING) If you build it, he will come.

[RUSTLING]

Todd Lockwood

So I went to see Field of Dreams, and about halfway into that film, it became really obvious to me that Brautigan's library is my baseball field. If I build it, people will come.

Sean Cole

It wasn't even before the movie was over that that struck you?

Todd Lockwood

Yeah. Yeah, as soon as that part of the film started to unfold, I was just astounded at the parallel. I was like, this is weird. I felt literally as if I'm supposed to be sitting here right now watching this. This is all part of a big plan.

Sean Cole

Which, if you remember, is exactly the way Kevin Costner's character felt in the movie.

Todd Lockwood

And I'm not a person that gets too caught up in the metaphysical aspects of life. But when I stepped outside the theater afterward, I just--

Ray Kinsella

I feel it as strongly as I've ever felt anything in my life.

Todd Lockwood

I'd never felt so sure about anything in my life.

Sean Cole

Todd immediately started calling around, putting a board of advisors together, appealing for funding. It took about half a year. And then finally--

Todd Lockwood

And around here on the side is our entrance.

Sean Cole

--the library opened its doors in Burlington, Vermont in 1990. This tape is from a BBC Radio story that aired a few years in. Todd led the producers past The Vermont Institute of Massage Therapy--

Todd Lockwood

And here we are.

Sean Cole

--to a modest wooden building, outfitted with comfy chairs and shelves for the books. A swinging placard out front said, in capital letters--

Todd Lockwood

The Brautigan Library.

Sean Cole

And underneath that, the words, "A Very Public Library."

[DOOR CLOSING]

Now it's one thing to adapt a piece of fiction into a movie. It's another thing to adapt a piece of fiction into a library. As soon as they started talking about how The Brautigan Library would work in real life, Todd and his advisors and volunteers realized that they were going to need to make some concessions, such as whereas in the novel, there's just one librarian, in real life, there were many. All volunteer, and none of them lived there. Certainly never impregnated anyone there, or not to Todd's knowledge.

And unlike in the novel, the books were almost exclusively submitted by mail. And the authors had to kick in a little money, $25 or so, to cover the cost of binding their manuscripts. And people actually came to read the books, from all over the country.

Todd Lockwood

I was sitting there one day, and a couple comes in the front door. And they announce, we're here! And I said, well, welcome. Where are you from? And this couple had flown from Houston for the weekend, specifically to hang out in The Brautigan Library for a couple of days.

Sean Cole

Stop it.

Todd Lockwood

And we had many of those.

Sean Cole

Probably because of the barrage of media stories about the library. New York Times, Wall Street Journal, a wire story that got picked up by hundreds of papers across the country. Everyone treated it as a quirky human interest story. The first and, at the time, only library for unpublished books, which started off as a piece of make-believe in a weirdo novel written 20 years beforehand.

There was a ledger the librarians used, but they didn't write down descriptions of the books that came in. Rather they wrote down descriptions of the people that came in. This is from that BBC story.

Woman

This is March 20, '93. "A man stopped by from Washington. 'Is this the library?' he asked. 'Yes,' I said. 'It's The Brautigan.' 'What's a Brautigan? Is it the city library?' I told him it was a home for unpublished manuscripts.

'Why?' he asked. 'So they can stay alive, and people can read them,' I said. He wasn't impressed. 'Where's the real library?' he wanted to know. 'Same street, three blocks up.' He left."

Sean Cole

A lot of people have asked that question-- why? And over the years, Todd has tended to give a pretty short and well-honed answer, almost like an artist statement. In fact, he used almost exactly the same words with the BBC producers in 1993, as he did with me in 2018.

Todd Lockwood

The beauty of it is that it doesn't make sense.

For me, one of the beauties of this whole thing was that it didn't make any sense.

Sean Cole

It was illogical.

Todd Lockwood

Yeah. Yeah.

Sean Cole

Just like in Field of Dreams, where he says, I have done something completely illogical.

Todd Lockwood

Right. Right. Oh, yeah.

Ray Kinsetta

I have just created something totally illogical.

Annie Kinsetta

That's what I like about it.

Sean Cole

It's what I liked about Todd's library, and it's what I'd always loved about the library in the novel, the fictional one. It wasn't just illogical. It was impossible. And I loved sitting with the librarian in that impossible place, surrounded by books that only he and the people who wrote them knew about.

So for someone to transform an imaginary magical place I loved into an actual location I could maybe visit one day, it was like finding out there was a real life chocolate factory, like the one Charlie visited, or a wardrobe that opened up unto a forest with talking animals in it.

But there was something else, something stranger, that The Brautigan Library had in common with Field of Dreams. The story goes like this. In 1991, about a year after the library opened, the Bumbershoot Arts Festival in Seattle asked Todd if he wanted to set up a mini version of the library at the festival, an exhibit. So Todd, his wife, and about 100 of the books they'd amassed up to that point got on a plane, flew out there, and set up shop in this indoor event space.

Todd Lockwood

And so first day at the exhibit, I'm showing people around. And this gentleman walks up to me, and puts out his hand, and says, Hi, I'm Bill Kinsella, the author of Shoeless Joe, the book Field of Dreams was based on.

Sean Cole

No way. No way.

Todd Lockwood

And I was just dumbfounded. I said, you have no idea how wildly fantastic it is that you are here right now. I said, if you hadn't have written that, I might never have stepped up to the plate and really done this.

Sean Cole

You just said, "stepped up to the plate."

Todd Lockwood

Oh. [LAUGHS]

Sean Cole

It just so happened that Bill Kinsella, or WP Kinsella is what it says on his book jackets, was a featured speaker at Bumbershoot that year.

Todd Lockwood

And he said, well. He said, I've got one for you. Were it not for Richard Brautigan, I would never have written that book.

Sean Cole

No way.

Todd Lockwood

In fact, he said I would never have gotten into being a fiction writer, were it not for Richard Brautigan.

Sean Cole

This is the part of the story that when I tell it to people, their eyes get really wide. The part where one twin in a fairy tale figures out why she's been wearing half a locket around her neck the entire time. Todd hadn't known it, but no other writer had as much of an impact on Kinsella's life and career as Richard Brautigan.

In 1985, Kinsella published a book of weird, vignettey short stories that he called his Brautigans. He dedicated the collection to Richard Brautigan, including, in the dedication, a fan letter he'd written to Brautigan, in which he said, quote, "I have just written a novel about a man who drives from Iowa to New Hampshire, kidnaps JD Salinger, and takes him to a baseball game at Fenway Park. He was talking about Shoeless Joe. That was part of the plot.

Sean Cole

And so you're both kind of shocked. I'm imagining two shocked men.

Todd Lockwood

Yeah, right. [LAUGHING] I was like, perhaps someway or other, Brautigan himself is playing some sort of role in all this. That we're like marionettes, and he's up there just with a great big smile on his face, just having a blast, messing with the real world.

Sean Cole

Or haunting it somehow, like he was saying, playfully, better not forget me. I wanted to talk with Bill Kinsella for this story, but he died in 2016 on September 16, the same day Richard Brautigan had died in 1984. Both of them chose that day to end their lives. Kinsella was terminally ill and opted for doctor-assisted suicide, which is legal now in Canada, where he's from. Brautigan shot himself with a revolver.

The Brautigan Library chugged along in its original location for about six years. But as Todd once wrote in an issue of the library newsletter, reality can be so clankingly real at times. By 1996, fewer and fewer manuscripts were coming in. Money was tight. Here and there, Todd had to make ends meet with funds from his own bank account.

And finally, the entire Brautigan Library was moved to a room in the Fletcher Free Library, the regular public library down the road in Burlington. It stopped accepting new books but people could still come and read the ones that existed. 10 years went by, and then the Fletcher Library decided it needed the space for other things. So all The Brautigan Library books, more than 300 of them, found themselves shrink wrapped on a wooden pallet in Todd Lockwood's basement.

And this is the moment in the library's history when I first heard about it. I've been wanting to tell this story and see the books for myself for about 10 years. But way back when Todd and I started talking about this, he said he needed to wait, that he was in negotiations with a couple of academic libraries that might be interested, couldn't do an interview until something was finalized, et cetera and so on. Certainly the books weren't available to look at. I said I'd keep checking in, but I didn't.

And then this past summer, I started thinking about the library again. So I looked it up, and the library had finally found a new home in Vancouver, Washington, about 3,000 miles away from where it was born.

John Barber

Watch your head here, low ceiling.

Sean Cole

And it had a new librarian, John Barber, a professor at one of the universities in town. He led me down into the basement of the Clark County Historical Museum.

John Barber

And here it is, The Brautigan Library.

Sean Cole

Wow.

John Barber

These are all the manuscripts.

Sean Cole

Oh, my gosh.

Come to find, the manuscripts have been housed in this building since 2010, and John Barber was instrumental in making that happen. If there's such a thing as a Brautigan scholar, it's him. He may know more about Richard Brautigan than anyone else alive. He was a student of Brautigan's and hung out with him.

So naturally, he was a big supporter of the library from early on. And when the library shut down, he was sad to think of all the books being mothballed in Todd's basement. Until finally, he just got inspired and organized to have them all moved to this place. And he's taken on the mantle of the librarian.

John Barber

Also, I should say, Richard Brautigan once told me that he would haunt me.

Sean Cole

Wait, he said, I will haunt you?

John Barber

Yes.

Sean Cole

This was in 1982, two years before Brautigan killed himself. Brautigan's friend, Nikki Arai, had just died of complications from cancer.

John Barber

And I said, you have your memories of her. You could write about those memories. You're a writer. That's what you do. And he said, I don't write for therapy, and actually got really upset with me. Then he said, but then again-- and he turned and walked away. And he came back after a few minutes with a little slip of paper, on which he had written, "Where you are now, I will join you soon."

Sean Cole

After dinner and another bottle of whiskey, they went out to the yard and burned the note in a kind of ritual to send those words to Brautigan's friend.

John Barber

And I went home that night-- slowly because of all the whiskey-- and wrote about that experience. And I showed it to him, and he said, if you ever show this to anybody before I'm dead, I will haunt you. And I did. And he does.

Sean Cole

After all, John, for all intents and purposes, now inhabits a physical manifestation of an idea Brautigan had in his head. And what's a little startling when you meet John is that he is the librarian from the novel. Like he's just like him. His clothes are not expensive but friendly and neat, and his human presence welcoming.

John Barber

Yes, we look an awful lot alike. Tall, mustache, glasses.

Sean Cole

He's reflexively polite and effusive. I had all three meals with him the day we spent together. And each time, he said to the server, in all earnestness, "Thank you for your hospitality." Same as when the museum's director let us in early before it opened.

John Barber

Thanks so much for accommodating us.

Man

Of course.

John Barber

Thanks.

Sean Cole

It's much smaller than I imagined somehow.

John Barber

Well, there's that, certainly. There's 300-plus manuscripts that are associated with the library. So we might actually say that it's small but mighty. Because each of these 300-plus manuscripts that we're standing in the middle of has dreams, and aspirations, memories, and hopes for the future associated with it.

Sean Cole

In fact, it's just two long sets of bookshelves at one end of the museum's research library. And all of the books have the same plain black, brown, gray, or blue bindings. The host of that BBC piece said they looked like body bags for whatever was inside of them. I really wonder how many of them were ever read cover to cover.

I wanted to see if being in the library gave me the same feeling I had as when I read The Abortion. And I have to say more and more, it really did feel like I had climbed into the pages of that novel, with its messy expanse of humanity marching through. Some of the books were silly. Others were mournfully nostalgic. Still others were deadly serious.

Sean Cole

Enjoy the War, Peace will be Terrible.

Which is about the lives of two teen girls in World War II Vienna. Others promoted radical ideas.

Sean Cole

Three Essays Advocating the Abolishing of Money.

Almost 50 poetry collections. I opened up one called I'd Be Your Roadkill, Baby. The poetry reading.

Sean Cole

"He greased me with his words--" oh! OK, I can't say that on the radio.

Instead of using Dewey Decimal, the books are organized according to what they call the Mayonnaise System. It's a Brautigan in-joke. He ended Trout Fishing in America with the word "mayonnaise." And it goes by category. So there's adventure, family, future, humor, love, meaning of life, poetry, natural world, social political cultural, spirituality, street life, war and peace, and my favorite, all the rest.

Sean Cole

[LAUGHS]

John Barber

There's always the miscellaneous drawer, right? Where something is just too offbeat to fit in.

Sean Cole

And instead of the summaries being in a big library contents ledger, there's a summary printed out on the first page of each book. Of course, almost all of the books are offbeat. Like this is the summary of a novel called Did She Leave Me Any Money?

Sean Cole

It says, "A philosophical comedy about men, money, motivation, winning strategies, architecture, nudism, trucking, corporate assassinations, heart attacks, sexual politics, hometown parades, spiritual warriors, and the dredging of Willapa Bay."

This is something a bunch of the books have in common. It's like their authors are gushing forth with everything they've been wanting to talk about their whole lives. And with a lot of them, there's this sense of, this is important. I alone have the answer. Just like with a lot of the books in Brautigan's novel. For instance, there's the most prolific contributor to The Brautigan Library, Albert E. Helzner.

He's got 19 books here, three under an assumed name. And they're mostly comprised of his own personal scientific theories and observations. Titles like A Revolutionary Way of Looking at the Earth as a Planet, or, more to the point, The World is Wrong. The only way I can think to describe it-- and I do so admiringly-- it's like PhD-level stoner thinking. Everything and everyone in the Helzner-verse is interconnected and impactful.

In his book, October 6, 1990, Helzner said that every year on October 6, he'd go to the maternity ward of a hospital, look at a newborn baby through the glass, and ask himself, how did this birth come about? What is the long-range effect? And what is the significance of any birth? Addressing the baby he went to see in 1990, he says he wants to tell her what transpired on the day before she was born.

"I spent the whole day thinking about you," he writes. "On that day, the moon was shining on my town of Marblehead, Massachusetts. It was a bright full moon sitting in a clear sky. My wife and I drove to Seaside 5 Corners for a bite to eat. We saw the moon as we drove along. We saw the old buildings. You'll see the same moon and the same old buildings when you grow up."

Albert Helzner died in June 2016, but his books are still at the library. God knows where that baby is now.

I asked John if there were any books in particular that he wanted to show me. And he was really enthusiastic about this one that he thought gave a sense of what the library was there for. It's called--

John Barber

Autobiography about a Nobody. And it's written by Etherley Murray of Pittman, New Jersey. And she may have said, oh look, here's a library that accepts manuscripts, regardless of subject matter.

Sean Cole

Right, exactly.

John Barber

I'm a nobody. They'll be interested.

Sean Cole

It's mainly the story of her growing up during the Depression in Altoona, Pennsylvania, eating onion sandwiches and, quote, "wearing coats that belonged to women who had just departed this life." Except it was in the humor section, intentionally so. There's a cartoon horse in a red union suit on the title page, tears cascading from behind its blinders.

John Barber

She says, in the notes that came along with the submission, that she had submitted it to 40 publishers, who, although they liked the story, did not publish manuscripts of nobodies.

Sean Cole

In Brautigan's novel, a guy in his 50s walks into the library with a book he wrote when he was 17. "'This book has set the world's record for rejections,' he says. 'It has been rejected 459 times, and now I am an old man.'"

Todd Lockwood

You know, there'd be a sense of completion, for one thing.

Sean Cole

This is Todd Lockwood again, the founder of the library.

Todd Lockwood

And we heard this from numerous writers that sent us works. After their book had been in the collection for a while, we'd hear back from them, hear back from writers who would say, wow, this really is a weight off. I just feel like the project is done finally. Even though it technically was finished, it's the fact that it's sitting on a shelf in a public place, where someone that that person doesn't know will cross paths with that book, and take it off the shelf, and perhaps read it. That sort of completes the circle, and I can get on to the next thing.

Sean Cole

It's funny to think about, but in some ways, The Brautigan Library is more like the library in the novel now than it ever has been. The books are housed in a building that looks more like the Presidio branch. They aren't often read by anyone. And it has one librarian, who actually is available at all hours of the day and night to accept new books, but only digitized ones, PDFs submitted online.

But the more I think about it, it's not about how perfectly or imperfectly Todd or John turned a fictional place into a real one. That's not the point. It's that Richard Brautigan in his novel predicted with perfect accuracy what would happen if you did create a library like this. That being there would give you a feeling like you're walking down the street and noticing that everyone has a book they've made tucked under one arm, a jumbled woolly individual transcription of how the world feels to that person.

It's the feeling of being able to read everyone's mind for a moment and being startled by their unedited thoughts because they're nothing like yours, but they're just as weird. It's like the librarian says in chapter two of the novel, "There just simply had to be a library like this."

Ira Glass

Sean Cole, who's one of the producers of our program. Coming up, a woman who went to the library every day for a while as a child suddenly realizes one day as an adult that the way she was remembering it was not right at all. That's in a minute. From Chicago Public Radio, when our program continues.

Act Three: Growing Shelf-Awareness

Ira Glass

This American Life, I'm Ira Glass. Today on our program, "The Room of Requirement," we have stories of how libraries function like a real-life version of that room in Harry Potter, the Room of Requirement. Where when you need something, the room just makes it appear for you, just like librarians try to do. Seriously, all over the world. Whatever your request. We have arrived at the third act of our program. Act Three, Growing Shelf Awareness.

This act is about somebody returning to the library that she went to as a kid, wanting something very specific and very personal out of that experience. One of our producers, Stephanie Foo, went with her.

Stephanie Foo

Lydia Sigwarth walks into her childhood library in Dubuque. It's this huge stone building with Roman columns, built over 100 years ago. And as soon as we pass the front door, Lydia stops dead in her tracks, looks up at the large, echoey rotunda above us, and gets quiet.

Stephanie Foo

Do you remember how you felt walking into the library when you were a kid?

Lydia Sigwarth

It was my favorite part of each day, and I always had a plan. I always came with a plan of what I wanted to do.

Stephanie Foo

This was her favorite place growing up. She only lives half an hour away now, but she hasn't been a patron here in nearly two decades. Back when she was six, Lydia, her mom, and her six siblings used to spend a lot of time here. Like a lot of time. They spent all day, almost everyday here for about half a year, while they were homeless.

We walk past a World War I exhibit into an airy space filled with nonfiction books and people working on computers.

Lydia Sigwarth

This was where the children's department used to be, I'm pretty sure.

Stephanie Foo

We go around the crafting zone into a quiet area by a big floor-to-ceiling window that looks out on the street.

Stephanie Foo

This was a very warm spot because of the window. I remember it being very cozy and warm.

There's some cushion chairs here. Those are new. Back then, they'd sit on the floor.

Lydia Sigwarth

My little brother would take his nap here. This was a quieter spot, where we're sitting right now. And I remember my eldest sister holding my little brother who's two at the time. And he was sleeping, and she would quietly read a book out loud to me.

Stephanie Foo

This used to be next to a big shelf, where they kept all The Boxcar Children books. They were free to run around unassisted, without parents hovering over them, to do whatever they wanted. If you think about it, libraries are kind of one of the only public spaces where kids have freedom like that. And so Lydia ran through the stacks, and crawled around on the play rug, or just stared out of this big window, her favorite, near where her baby brother used to sleep.

Lydia Sigwarth

I forgot about this. So the entrance is below us right now. And I would watch people come in and out because we'd be here for hours at a time. And I would watch people come in and then wait for them to come back out and see how many books they had.

Stephanie Foo

Lydia came from a stable family, but when they moved from Denver to Dubuque, they had a tough time finding a place they could afford. So they crashed with friends and family, moving every month or two. Lydia remembers all nine of them, crammed together in someone's basement. She and her five sisters all slept together on a big L-shaped couch, with blow-up mattresses in the middle. And every morning, Lydia's mom would pack up all the kids and take them to the library.

Lydia Sigwarth

I think that's why they took us here, is to give the family we were staying with privacy, but also to give us our own measures of privacy.

Stephanie Foo

Because it's so big. You could--

Lydia Sigwarth

We could spread out and have our own spots. So I had spots here, and you can't have a spot in a furnished basement shared with eight other people.

Stephanie Foo

Her parents did such a good job pretending that they were just on a fun adventure, that Lydia didn't register any of this as painful or difficult. She didn't even really understand that their family was going through anything, until she was having a conversation at work about a year ago, talking about homeless people coming to the library.

It came rushing back to her. Wait a minute, that was me. She honestly had never thought about it for almost two decades.

Lydia Sigwarth

And I'm sitting in this meeting, like almost crying, like I teared up. I was like, how did I never realize this before? And how did we never talk about this? And then I was like, it's because it wasn't traumatic. We were fine. We were happy. We were fed, and clothed, and taken care of. So there was nothing wrong. Because I remembered that time so fondly, that I was like, oh, that was the year we lived in the library. It was the best time ever.

I just remember the feeling that it gave me, of belonging. I get really emotional thinking about it because I credit Mrs. S for most of it.

Stephanie Foo

Mrs. S was the children's librarian. Lydia's favorite spot in the library was by her desk.

Lydia Sigwarth

It was a round desk, like a half moon round desk. So I would make a beeline over here and make my demands known. [LAUGHS]

Stephanie Foo

Every morning, all seven kids would run in and spread out over her library. But every day, Mrs. S would greet them warmly. She'd stroll the stacks with Lydia, helping her find something to read. They had conversations about books and about life. Lydia remembers this one day in particular, when Mrs. S came up to her with a recommendation.

Lydia Sigwarth

I remember her putting aside the book, The Twelve Dancing Princesses, for me. I remember her bringing it to me and saying that this came back, and I thought of you right away when I saw it because you have sisters. So I got this for you.

Stephanie Foo

It was the first book that felt perfect for her. The youngest princess in the book was the heroine, and she was also the youngest sister in her family. She was sure Mrs. S was telling her that she was special.

Lydia wanted to find Mrs. S for a few years because she had such great memories of her, but who exactly was she? Lydia had no idea what the S stood for, like what her real last name was. She visited the library once to ask, and they said they weren't sure. It had been decades. But there was a Mrs. Stephenson who had worked here a long time. Only problem was she couldn't talk to her that day because she was on vacation. So Lydia just went home.

Then about a year ago, when all of the memories of her being homeless came flooding back, she wrote a long email to say thank you and sent it to Mrs. Stephenson. But she never got a response. Lydia thought, it's probably not the right Mrs. S, or maybe she doesn't remember me.

Lydia Sigwarth

We get to go to the staff only. Very exciting.

Stephanie Foo

So I'll just tell you. I called ahead, and yep, Mrs. Stephenson was Mrs. S. And yes, she totally remembered Lydia. So we went to see her in the staff only area. It was the first time Lydia had seen her since she was a little kid. Mrs. S was sitting in a big, warm office, decorated with paintings of cows and pink monsters. And when she saw Lydia, she rushed out with her arms wide open and grabbed her into a huge hug.

Mrs. Stephenson

[LAUGHS] Hi, sweetheart.

Lydia Sigwarth

Hi.

Mrs. Stephenson

Aww, you look the same.

Lydia Sigwarth

Do I?

Mrs. Stephenson

Yes, just taller.

Lydia Sigwarth

Do you remember me?

Mrs. Stephenson

I remember your family.

Lydia Sigwarth

Aww because we were here all the time.

Mrs. Stephenson

Mm-hmm. Yeah, that's what I remember. Golly!

Stephanie Foo

Try to think of the last person you've met who used the word "golly" with all sincerity. I can see why Mrs. S made her feel cared for.

Lydia Sigwarth

I brought you a present that is very badly wrapped. I don't know what happened to my ribbon.

Mrs. Stephenson

Then I think it's beautiful now.

Lydia Sigwarth

Thank you.

[WRAPPING CRINKLING]

Stephanie Foo

It is, of course, a copy of The Twelve Dancing Princesses.

Mrs. Stephenson

Oh, my God! Did I introduce this book to you?

Lydia Sigwarth

You did.

Mrs. Stephenson

It's my very favorite book of all time.

Lydia Sigwarth

That's so funny because I thought it was special for me.

Mrs. Stephenson

Well, of course it was!

Stephanie Foo

Then Lydia asks Mrs. S, did she read her letter? Turns out Mrs. S never got it. We figure it probably got caught by her spam filter. And so Lydia starts to explain everything about that moment recently where she realized she'd been homeless.

Lydia Sigwarth

This was my home for that year, and I felt like I belonged. I belonged, and I was safe here. And I believe that was partially due to your influence, for me.

Mrs. Stephenson

Oh, oh. Aww! I can't-- I give your parents all that credit. I knew, but I-- we just-- no! It's your mom and dad.

Lydia Sigwarth

And I really do give them so much credit, but my memories from that time are all of you treating me so well. And I felt so important here. I felt like you thought that I was just the greatest, and it just means so much.

Mrs. Stephenson

Aww, I just think that's wonderful.

Stephanie Foo

That's the sound of a hug.

Mrs. Stephenson

It's everyday life for the library.

Lydia Sigwarth

It is! It is.

Mrs. Stephenson

It's what we do.

Stephanie Foo

Do you remember knowing about the family situation when they were in?

Mrs. Stephenson

I didn't know the exacts of the family situation. We just knew. We just knew. They were here every day. It was obvious.

Stephanie Foo

Lydia starts nodding effusively to what Mrs. S is saying. She knows exactly what she's talking about because Lydia works with those kids everyday herself. She's a librarian, a children's librarian.

Mrs. Stephenson

And you became a librarian?

Lydia Sigwarth

I did because of you.

Mrs. Stephenson

I think it's awesome. You don't realize how much influence you have on anybody, just by doing your job.

Lydia Sigwarth

You keep saying you were just doing your job, and I feel like I need to say, though, that you did not have to be that kind. You could have done your job without being that eternally kind. And that's something that I think about a lot because there are situations with children that I know are coming from difficult places or children who are there all day, and they just need a lot from me.

And there are days when I don't want to be the most kind person on the planet because I'm tired or the child is being challenging. There are always those days. But you were that kind.

Stephanie Foo

Yes, the girl who lived at the library grew up to become a librarian, helping other kids like her.

Lydia Sigwarth

I'll have families that, I would say, most of the kids that are there all the time, it's because they don't want to be home or don't have a stable home. And I hope I'm doing the same thing for my kids. It's so important to me.

Mrs. Stephenson

You are. I don't think you have to hope. I know you are, just by watching and seeing your reactions today. I know you are. You are.

Lydia Sigwarth

Thank you. [SNIFFLES]

Mrs. Stephenson

You're welcome. Absolutely. Just continue to do what you're doing. It's obvious.

Lydia Sigwarth

I'm just going to cry now for a little while. It's fine.

Stephanie Foo

The two women swap numbers in their phones. They make a date to get fried pickles in Platteville and to talk shop about disenfranchised youth and best practices at story time.

I visited the Platteville library, where Lydia has been a children's librarian for eight years. And I have to say she's really great at her job. She pinballs from one side of the room to another, helping one kid fix her computer, making sure others are safe as they walk out.

Lydia Sigwarth

Well, it's gone black. That's a great sign. There we go!

Girl

Yes!

Lydia Sigwarth

Yes. OK, we fixed it.

Girl

Now let me listen to my song.

Lydia Sigwarth

How are you doing, bud? Good? Good. All right.

It's probably a better idea to put coats on.

Stephanie Foo

She brought in her parents' scale and used some old x-rays to make a fake hospital and has a fish named Fishstick that the kids help take care of.

[RUNNING FAUCET]

Lydia Sigwarth

Oops.

Boy

Are we gonna fill it up--

Lydia Sigwarth

We are going to fill it up.

Boy

--with toilet water?

Lydia Sigwarth

Not with toilet water.

Boy

[LAUGHS]

Stephanie Foo

The windows have little reading nooks in them and a giant bear to cuddle with named Sir Fluffy Puffy McBearson. On April Fool's Day, she set up a self checkout line. It was just a mirror at the counter. Get it? She also holds her monthly book club, where she and a bunch of kids talk about their readings, but also build things out of stacked books, and create funny videos, and play games.

I talked to a couple of kids who said they used to hate reading, but now they love it, all because of Miss Lydia's book club.

Anna

I want to know where the shadow puppet books are.

Lydia Sigwarth

Shadow puppets. You want to learn how to make shadow puppets?

Anna

Mm-hmm.

Lydia Sigwarth

OK, let's do that.

Stephanie Foo

Lydia has one girl at her library who is there all the time, every day. We'll call her Anna. Anna reminds Lydia of herself growing up, but she's had it harder.

Her living arrangements aren't stable. She's often hungry. Lydia worries about her when she disappears for a week. One day about a year ago when Anna was 9, she had the same impulse with Lydia that Lydia had with Mrs. S. Anna wrote her a letter.

It says, "Lydia is really nice. She's a really nice person. She's an intelligent, rememberative, and fast young woman. Sometimes when I'm at home, I just want to go to the library, just to see Lydia."

Ira Glass

Stephanie Foo.

Credits

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Stephanie Foo. The people who put our show together includes Zoe Chace, Dana Chivvis, Sean Cole, Jared Floyd, Michelle Harris, Chana Joffe-Walt, Jay Kang, David Kestenbaum, Anna Martin, Stone Nelson, Nadia Reiman, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp, Christopher Swetala, and Matt Tierney. Our senior producer is Brian Reed. Our managing editor is Susan Burton.

The reporters who went to libraries for us at the top of the show. Jude Joffe-Block was in Phoenix. Liza Veale was in San Francisco. Rachael London was in Florida. And our producer, Anna Martin, was at the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana. Thanks today to Eric Klinenberg, who spoke about libraries as palaces for the people. It was helpful to us as we thought about this week's show, as was Susan Orlean's book, The Library Book.

Thanks also today to Ianthe Brautigan, William Steele, Elizabeth Jensen, William Hartston, Ashleyanne Krigbaum, Brian Belfiglio, Annie Proulx Marcia Popper, Brad Richardson and everybody at the Clark County Historical Museum, Michael Fast Buffalo Horse, Joe Rutherford, Bridgit Bowden, and Zach Goelman. Also thanks to the staffs of the Phoenix Public Library, the Queens Public Library, the Sumter County Public Library, the San Francisco Public Library, and the Medicine Spring Library.

Our web site, thisamericanlife.org, where you can listen to our archive of over 600 episodes for absolutely free. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks as always our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia. We had the biggest fight the other day, him and me. I told him, look, it's like you think you're God or something. He didn't deny it.

John Barber

Yes, we look an awful lot alike. Tall, mustache, glasses.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of this American life.

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