by Amy White
Late in 1989, I became the director of a small public library in Lisbon, Iowa, current population 2,011. The library is housed in one of the oldest storefront buildings in the town (built in 1875) and at the time that I started working here, the second floor of the two-story brick building had no heat or electricity and served as a giant attic for the city’s old Christmas decorations and water bill ledgers. The first floor, however, was an inviting space, with big plate glass windows allowing light into the front of the library, and I worked with the library board of trustees and library patrons to make the library–at that time, not much more than a repository for old books–into a community gathering place.
My formal degree is in creative writing, not library science, but I had worked in a library while in graduate school and was happy to have a part time job serving members of my new community. When my children were little, I used my writing skills to script puppet plays that I presented (sometimes with their help) at library story times, but it wasn’t until they were quite a bit older that I wanted to try my hand at writing again. About this time–in 1997–the library board decided to launch a fundraising campaign to renovate the second floor of the library into the cultural center and meeting place that it had been when the building was new. In the late nineteenth century, the space above what was then the Wink and Hauser store was a performance hall for musicians, vaudevillians and lecturers, and the town loved the idea of restoring it to its original purpose. With a few large donations and a lot of little ones, the renovation was completed and an elevator was installed. A grant paid for fifty chairs and a baby grand piano. The stagecraft class from nearby Cornell College’s theatre department donated their design and labor to build a stage at the north end of the long room. A board member drove to Minnesota to purchase an antique chandelier. Lisbon Heritage Hall was open for business. We just needed artists.
Musicians contacted us almost before the paint was dry. Performance space of the size we had was at a premium, and we attracted musicians from the University of Iowa and Cedar Rapids, as well as local piano teachers and their pupils. A group of writers approached me and asked if they could give a reading. They knew I had a background in writing so they invited me to join them (and it was my library, after all). One of them had connections with a jazz pianist and his band, so we added music to the program. The first Evening of Words and Music was on a chilly night in January of 1999, and the crowd was SRO. I read a piece I’d written about my father’s childhood in rural Virginia in the 1920′s. Performing in front of an audience reminded me of the drama days of my teenaged years, and I decided to write for the stage. At this point, I was specifically writing for the tiny Heritage Hall stage, where I felt safe and comfortable–at home in my own library, with my friends and fellow community members in the audience–and in 2001, the local community theatre (which I had discovered a few years before) staged my first full length play right there.
In the time since then, I’ve continued to write plays and have sent out my monologues and short works to theatres in other communities–other states, even–with enough success to encourage me to keep writing. I help to organize the annual Words and Music event, still going strong after more than a decade, and am proud of my library for providing a space for artists to share their work. Writing is a lonely business, and libraries are places that should celebrate writers and bring them out into their own community. As an artist, I’m fortunate to have my own library.
Amy White is the Director of the Lisbon Public Library in Lisbon, Iowa.
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