It’s just a square building made of white planks with a gray pyramid roof settled on top, like a hat that’s a little bit too big. The building could have been the inspiration for the schoolhouse in the Little House on the Prairie books. The original hardcover versions of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s series may even be housed within the wooden bones.
The little lost library in the middle of town…
When the tiny library was built in 1897, no one probably thought of it as tiny. Back then a railroad still ran through town, well before the tracks were paved over and became a trail for bicyclists in colorful spandex. During construction, the town of Vienna, VA, was barely a mile across and horse and buggies rolled along the muddy streets. Today the town bustles with craft beer dens and music venue-coffee shops.
The building is now called the Original Vienna Library. Although replaced by a newer, shinier model a few blocks away in the 1960s, the original library still rests in the center of town. However, not many people notice it anymore.
Some passersby may smile at the sign out front denoting its historical pedigree or at the Little Lending Library box. But these are just superficial grins. Most residents and visitors of the town I imagine have never walked through the old white door. The Original Vienna Library is only open once a month for a few hours, after all. The stars of playdates, power walks and wine meet-ups would have to align in order to fit a visit into the complicated schedules of Vienninites.
Like the decommissioned red caboose across the street, the Original Vienna Library provides a fledgling anchor to the idea of old village charm in a town swelling with giant mansions and young families who appreciate books, but prefer them on their Kindles or as objects at their book clubs. In this changing demographic, not much thought is given to an old library museum housing only yellow-paged vintage books you can’t even technically check out.
It appeared out of nowhere but had been there all my life…
I can’t be too critical of the current Vienna residents. I grew up in this town and I never noticed the old library building either, which sits in the shadow of an old-fashioned candy store. As a kid when it was a choice between books and sugar, sugar won. Sugar > Books. It’s like basic kid math.
“Original Vienna Library?” I say to my daughter, as I spot the sign during a visit to the local town festival, Viva Vienna. “Where did it come from?”
She replies with something teenagery like, “It’s always been here. How did you miss it?” And then, like any good, dutiful daughter who knows it’s better to placate your crazy writer mom than to try to fight against the forces of her book-obsessed nature, she smiles for a picture and walks with me through the door. (Trust me, I know how lucky I am to have a kid like her.)
Some people will move heaven and earth, or at least a building, for access to books…
It’s dark inside and the one-room building smells like books. Not just books, old books, a perfume created from cloth and paper absorbing a century of history, like bricks of a fireplace lock in the smell of ash and embers. It’s the smell of the past when books were like precious gems and libraries were the intellectual souls of small towns.
The one-room building smells like books…a perfume created from cloth and paper absorbing a century of history, like bricks of a fireplace lock in the smell of ash and embers.
I run my fingers across the bumpy bindings. I love the faded colors, the frayed edges. The content of books can take me to any place and any time, but holding a book that is 20, 40, 80, 100 years old connects me to the past. Someone else, many someone elses, held this book, read this book. Who were they? What did they think of it? How fun would it be to open a book and be able to know the life of all the people who read it before?
My mother often talks about when she was a teenager, how excited she’d get for the bookmobile to come by her house. She always loved books, but they were scarce, and, therefore, precious. This place reminds me of my mother, the young version of her, the wide-eyed girl eager to slip between the pages and disappear.
A local library expert sits in a chair near the window, clicking a little sliver counter as people enter. His voice carries across the room and finds me. It’s impossible not to. There’s no place to hide in here.
He starts by reciting the number of books currently housed in the library (somewhere in the 5,000 range). And he explains how a historian has been trying to figure out the original organization system for the library since it pre-dated the Dewey Decimal system.
Then he tells me how the actual, physical building I’m standing in moved two times. The first move, he explains, was at the behest of the town. In 1912, the Vienna residents wanted the library moved closer to the center of town because its original location was just too far away.
There’s something about this fact that makes me feel awe for the past and a bit of sadness for the present. These turn-of-the-century townspeople requested an entire building be moved so they could more easily read books.
Today books can be borrowed or bought with a tap of our fingers. We go to Amazon or even a library app and with one click, we have instant access to nearly any piece of literature. Yet, as a society, we read less than ever before.
What happened? I wonder as he tells me this story. Has the kind of revere for books that would cause an entire town to move a building been left in the past, buried under binge-watching, non-stop news cycles and social media? Does unfettered access always come with the downside of diminished appreciation?
It’s not a library unless it has histories and mysteries…
As I walk the creaking floors, I spin further into the past when I spot the yellow-spines of the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mysteries. My grandmother had books from these series tucked away in her basement. I’d tiptoe down the stairs, pretending to be an explorer discovering an ancient piece of literature in an old abandoned house. I’d crack open the books carefully. The binding would bend beneath my fingers. As I flipped the delicate pages, I’d whisper, “In this version of Nancy Drew, there’s a secret code for finding a treasure inside this house” or “If I read this old book backward it will unleash a ghost.” The old books became part of my imagination and when I was done, I’d carefully return them to the shelf, unharmed. They felt sacred.
The old books became part of my imagination and when I was done, I’d carefully return them to the shelf, unharmed. They felt sacred.
“Do you know why Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys are always together?” the library guru nestled by the window asks two women who have wandered through the door. In the small room, I can’t help but overhear the conversation.
“No,” they reply.
“Carolyn Keene wrote the Nancy Drew books and Franklin Dixon wrote Hardy Boys. But they’re actually the same person. I can’t remember his name, but it was a common thing to do back then,” he explains.
(I, of course, had to look this up when I got home and found out he was partially correct. These classic series were written under pen names. But it wasn’t one person who wrote them all, it was a ghost-writing conglomerate of people known as the Stratemeyer Syndicate. And even that is an oversimplification of the mystery surrounding the authors of these famous books. A story for another time…)
Are secrets of the library’s magic lost forever?
The Original Vienna Library and the people who take care of it keep these kinds of literary secrets and treasures locked up in the ancient walls. Secrets just waiting to be discovered if you walk in and hold a book or just listen for a few minutes. Yet this once central building has become a ghost. There, but mostly forgotten, like an old rocking chair in the basement. A literary soul hidden under cobwebs. But at least once a month for 3 hours, it can be found again and people like me can appreciate its magic.
What do you think? Have our literary souls been buried under technology and social media or just transformed into something new in the modern age? Can we ever get back that revere people had for books when they were scarce, like precious gems, or is that gone forever?