this is not a post about cats

“As librarians we have to remember to select books whose effects we will never know.” –Roger Sutton [link]

I was sitting at the front desk at the library and trying to catch up on some blog reading during a quiet spell when I ran across Elizabeth Bird’s post on Millions of Cats by Wanda Gag. Head on over to her place to read about the history of the book and to see some gorgeous illustrations from it. I don’t know if it is the best picture book of all time — it has never gone over particularly well when I’ve read it for story time here — but it will always be a book in my canon because of Hazel Westgate.

Hazel Westgate was the children’s librarian at the Iowa City Public Library throughout my youth, and for many years before that. She is the reason the library has a collection of children’s book art (mouse over number 10 on the map to see it), and every year she ran two contests — a Halloween story contest and a cat-drawing contest inspired by her favorite picture book, Millions of Cats.

I was never even an honorable mention in the drawing contest, but being a winner of the story contest two years in a row is still one of my proudest accomplishments. Hazel Westgate spent the summer dreaming up the opening lines for stories. When school started, those lines would be passed out, and you picked one and wrote a story that began with it. Winners got to do a reading and signing of their stories, just like grown up authors, and the event was broadcast on the library’s public access channel, and, in the two years I won, we also got an illustration for our stories, done on gel like a cartoon frame and matted.

But here’s the thing: I never spoke to Hazel Westgate. I knew she was the lady with the frizzy hair who read stories to us at story time, and later I knew she was the person who wrote those opening lines. And she knew who I was — my father took me and my friend to story hour every Saturday for years, and when he died, my mother later told me, Hazel Westgate sent us a condolence note. But I don’t ever remember talking to her.

When classes come in to the library here to choose books, I leave my office and hang out, and sometimes a kid comes up to me with a question, and once in awhile I sense they are looking for some help, and I go offer it. But most of the time I just stand there and watch — watch them picking up books and looking at them and sometimes taking them and sometimes putting them back, and sometimes talking to each other and sometimes off by themselves.

I know that nowadays we are supposed to be all about reaching out to patrons and meeting where they are and building radical trust and all that, and to some degree those are all good things. But my connection to libraries (and Steve Lawson has written before about this same thing) was not about the librarians: it was about the books. I never talked to Hazel Westgate directly, but I communed with her many times. I wandered the stacks, I picked up the books she chose, and I took them home and read them, and many of them I still remember to this day.

On the days when I feel I’m not doing anything interesting or innovative at my dinky little library, the days when I berate myself for not doing more programs or putting out more exhibits or running contests, I try to remember that it wasn’t just the story times and the contests that made Hazel Westgate great. It was also the books. And I am indebted to Hazel Westgate, to Barb Stein and Victoria Walton, the librarians at my grade school, and to many librarians since then whose names I don’t know and whose faces I may never have seen.

As librarians we have to remember to select books whose effects we will never know. That is part of our purpose, too.

8 thoughts on “this is not a post about cats”

  1. And do you remember that Hazel collected book marks? I had a fistful I was going to give her, but never got around to it before she died. Lovely, thank you.

  2. No, I don’t remember that — but then, as I’ve said, I don’t remember ever talking to her, and indeed, I barely knew her. But I still know the books she picked.

  3. I loved your story! It brought back memories from my childhood. The visit to the library and all the wonderful and exciting days of exploration and discovery in the stacks. I do not remember the librarians, but I remember the beginning of my love affair with books. To quote and old saying, “Thanks for the memories.”

  4. As part of the “Why I became a librarian” meme of Feb ’08, I mentioned my childhood children’s librarian who really *is* the one who inspired me. I did talk with Miss Osborn, and at my first ALA (Chicago ’76) she bought me lunch. (Here is a link: http://michaelgolrick.blogspot.com/2008/02/why-am-i-librarian.html)

    When she died, a couple of years ago — wait I just checked, it has been more than 5 — I did a memorial resolution at ALA Council where I also mentioned that as part of the story time activities she helped us to learn to say the name of the nearby lake which is the longest place name in the US (and was on NPR’s ATC a few weeks ago).

    But I wonder who I have touched. For almost 10 years I did half of the 2nd grade tours at the library I was director of, and gave them all a chance to ask me questions. Some of those were pretty interesting.

    Anyway, thanks!

  5. Amen! Thank you for giving a shout-out to a librarian who actually cared about the BOOKS. The last children’s librarian I knew spent 99% of her time crafting and dreaming about crafting and how crafts could be used in storytimes, and 1% of her time worrying about book selection and how the kids’ section of the library looked. God that used to piss me off. So this post was balm to my wounded public librarian soul.

  6. I stumbled upon this site with pleasure. Hazel was my Aunt and I surely loved her a lot. I always enjoyed when she would come up to Ashland on the old train that wasn’t really for passengers. Couldn’t have been very comfortable, but it sure was fun waiting for it to roll into the station. I have some of her small clay figures that were baked and glazed. My mom also has an old video from library hour with her and the children. Maybe some of you are in it!!! It was nice to read here about your memories of a very special lady. Thank you. She would be very proud ,Hazels niece, Jeanette Forness

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