Thursday, November 04, 2010

Bill Crider, In Defense of Library Patrons

There was a big brouhaha on the listserv DorothyL this week when mystery author K.C. Constantine, who once wrote the Mario Balzac mysteries, was quoted as calling  "library users literary welfare bums."  And, his own website says, "In Bottom Line Blues he spent an entire chapter attacking public libraries."  Thank heavens, mystery author Bill Crider stepped up to the plate to say he always loved libraries, and had a number of stories about them.  I jumped on that, and asked him to tell us a few of those stories.

It's hard not to like an author whose biographical sketch on his website includes information about his three cats.   Crider taught English at the college level for year, but his Ph.D. dissertation was on the hardboiled detective novel.  In the mystery field, he's best known for his Sheriff Dan Rhodes series, described as "The adventures of a sheriff in a small Texas county where there are no serial killers, where a naked man hiding in a dumpster is big news, and where the sheriff still has time to investigate the theft of a set of false teeth."

So, thank you, Bill, for taking time to tell us a few stories about libraries. 

Library Stories

I’ve subscribed to DorothyL, the crime and mystery e-list, for more years than I can remember. Usually I just lurk these days, but when someone mentioned K. C. Constantine’s comment that library users were “literary welfare bums,” I was moved to put in a good word for libraries and library users, mainly because I am one. A library user, that is, not a library. I didn’t think anyone would notice, but someone did. So here I am.

I grew up in a house without many books. In fact, I still have the five or six books I owned as a child, including the remains of the Mother Goose book with which I supposedly met my father at the door every afternoon, demanding that he “‘ead Mama Goose.” But if I didn’t have many books, I had a mother who knew where to get them, and that was the public library. As I mentioned on DL and have mentioned elsewhere, one of my earliest memories of my mother is of her holding me up so I could reach the library shelves and pick out a book. I still remember the book, which was Clementina, the Flying Pig. Sometimes nostalgia tempts me to buy a copy of it, but when I look at the prices it commands, I decide that nostalgia is too expensive these days. At any rate, I loved that book, and I’m sure my mother read it to me many times. Maybe its influence on me has never died, as witness the title of my forthcoming (in 2011) Sheriff Dan Rhodes novel, The Wild Hog Murders. That might seem a pretty slim connection to you, but please remember this story when you seen the cover for the book. I’ll put it on my blog soon.

But I digress. I was going to tell some library stories. The two libraries in Mexia, Texas, became like second homes to me as I was growing up. There were two because the original library was replaced by the Gibbs Memorial Library, a fine air-conditioned building that wasn’t exactly structurally sound and that has now been replaced by a third library, an even finer one with the same name. The first library is still there, by the way, but it’s now a part of the Christ Episcopal Church complex. And sure enough, I’ve digressed again. I have a tendency to do that. I’d better stop.

Here’s a library story for you. When I was in college, a friend of mine and I were home for some holiday or other. We began talking about Dr. Seuss and how much we’d liked certain of his books when we were kids, McElligot’s Pool being a particular favorite. We decided we had to read the book again, so we were off the Gibbs Memorial Library. The book was right where it had always been, and we sat down to read it. Mind you, we were in the room with the children’s books, and the tables and chairs weren’t built for two guys of our size. We didn’t care. We sat in the little-bitty chairs, our knees sticking out above the table top and started reading. Pretty soon we were having a wonderful time. Maybe we even did a little reading aloud: “Oh, the sea is so full of a number of fish, . . .” Pretty soon after that the librarian came in. We must have been quite a sight, and we’d forgotten about being quiet. Even though there was nobody else in the room, we got shushed. We were also asked to leave the children’s room because we might break the chairs. I had my doubts. Those were study chairs, solid wood. But we went quietly. It’s the only time I was ever chastised in a library.

Or maybe not. There was the time when I was a bit younger and had discovered the wonders of photography magazines. Those were in the periodicals room, and I believe the library had subscriptions to only one of them, maybe Modern Photography. Memory grows dim. At any rate, the attraction of the magazine (at least to me) wasn’t the amazing photography hints (shoot at 1/32 of a second at f/2.4) as the occasional “art studies.” I didn’t know much about art, but I knew what I liked. So did the librarian, who wandered through one day and happened to notice my choice in “reading” material. She obviously thought I should try something else, though she didn’t take the magazine away from me. Instead she suggested that I try a different one, maybe Boy’s Life. I put down the photography magazine and picked up Boy’s Life, which I glanced through until she left the room. Then it was back to my studies.

Yes, I was the only one in the room. I often was, and for years I’d spend hours there reading magazines like The New Yorker and The Atlantic, which I suspected that no one else in town cared about. I loved Colliers and The Saturday Evening Post and Life. Not to mention Mechanix Illustrated, where I discovered the writing of Tom McCahill, whose prose I greatly admired. He coined the phrase “zero to sixty” in his road tests, but that was the least of it. If you like wild metaphors, you can’t go wrong with Tom McCahill. I wanted to be Tom McCahill when I grew up. Didn’t make it, though.

When I was in graduate school, I was finally able to get a “stack permit” to enter the vast holdings of the main library at The University of Texas at Austin. What a great time I had there, when instead of doing research on the papers that were due in my classes, I could pore over the bound back issues of The New York Times Book Review. I read every single one of Anthony Boucher’s “Criminals at Large” columns with a pen in one hand and a note pad beside me. I wrote down the titles of practically everything he recommended. The paperback originals, I bought in used-book stores. The hardcovers, I checked out of the library, which had a wonderful and up-to-date collection. Those were the days.

I’ve run on too long here, but it’s no wonder. Call me a literary welfare bum if you will, but I love libraries. Let me mention just one more thing about my hometown library, the annual reading game. As you can see from the newspaper article, I was a pretty good reader even 60 years ago. However, I was humiliated and trounced in the 1951 game by Jessie Lou Lively. How could she possibly have read so many more books than I did? I have no excuse. Well, okay, I have one. She was older than I was. Maybe that explains it.

The librarian whose name you see in the article was an older woman with hair that had once been red but was at that time mostly gray. Mrs. Armstrong. I thought she was wonderful. I still do.

On behalf of all librarians, Bill, and all of us who grew up using, and loving public libraries, Constantine's "literary welfare bums," thank you.
Bill Crider's website is


kathy d. said...

What! Attacking libraries? How terrible.

Those of us who love books probably got started in public libraries. I had a library card when I was three, the youngest one ever in New York City's Greenwich Village (in the early 1950s).

That's like criticizing health care. Maybe Constantine is someone who wants to end Medicare, too.

All of this privatization stuff could be affecting his thinking, that somehow people don't have a right to public libraries.

Libraries are being cut out of some cities in New Jersey and elsewhere, due to budget problems. It is a horrible tragedy for residents where there are no libraries--for children (who need their programs), for the elderly who often spend days there, for many of the unemployed, and for readers of all ages.

I also had a red-haired favorite school librarian in Chicago, Mrs. Hartney, in the late 1950s. She was wonderful.

Having libraries, available books, is one of the great educational tools and joys in our lives.

People campaigned in my city when the mayor's office was going to cut back hours, days, staff, programs. It happened twice and was mostly effective.

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

Oh, I can't believe that someone would attack libraries/patrons that way! I feel like libraries are authors' biggest cheerleaders.

I love Bill's library stories. I grew up in a library practically...I can't imagine life without the library.

Lesa said...


Thank you! As someone who has used libraries since we moved to town when I was five, I too appreciate Bill's defense. And, that's as a library user, not a librarian. I'm so glad the people in your town continue to support libraries.

Lesa said...

There might be a reason K.C. Constantine's books are no longer well known. Maybe librarians didn't push his books after his comments became known.

Thank you, Elizabeth, for your support of libraries.

kathy d. said...

Actually, Lesa, I live in New York.

And twice the mayoral administration was drastically going to cut back libraries hours, days, staff, children's programs (!), and more.

And twice library staff and loyal readers organized, wrote letters, etc., and most cutbacks were stopped.

I could complain that many mysteries, especially older ones and international ones are dealt with this way: one copy in midtown noncirculating. This is bad for parents, full-time working people, students, children, elderly, disabled people. (This particular thing gets me grumpy as I often look up books and one copy is in midtown way to get those books--and many are classics!)

But that's a minor gripe given the whole system of libraries which is quite phenomenal with inter-branch book, dvd and cd loans and readers having access to the whole catalog online.

I forgot to defend library readers from horrid remarks like Constantine's. It's like blaming people who go to public school (most of us) for using the schools or using the city's water, sanitation or firefighting system.

Well, I have to chill out. This is too aggravating.

Lesa said...


That's exactly how it became on DorothyL, too aggravating. That's why I asked Bill to tell a few positive library stories here.

Kay said...

Amen and amen! 'Nuff said. I've let my subscription to DorothyL lapse. Looks like I need to reconnect there. ;-p

And my question to all of you is, do you know how to actually pronounce Mexia? Muh-ha-uh (long A). It's a Texas thing. LOL

Lesa said...

Thanks, Kay. I know exactly where you stand.

I guess it's a Texas thing! I never would have guessed that.

Lynda K said...


Thanks for hosting Mr. Crider!

In these tough economic times, libraries support so many important services - not only access to books, magazines, and dvds/cds, but kids story groups, adult reader groups, public internet access, and a whole host of others. I'm fortunate to work in a library (though not as a librarian), and recent years have brought an explosion of users!

Lesa said...


It was my pleasure to host Bill Crider. He's funny, and a true professional who sent me his guest blog very quickly. Most of all, he took a touchy subject, and made it enjoyable.

Kaye Barley said...

From one "literary welfare bum" to another . . . Bill, this was a wonderful post. I always love your stories and these are just treasures. Pure, classic Crider.

Lesa - Thank you! You are so smart to do this post. It's quite special.

Anonymous said...

Great piece, Bill. Anyone who knows Bill will not be surprised that he still has that newspaper cutting from 1951.

My mother also took us to the library early and in some ways I've never left. I doubt if a week goes by without at least one visit, and as kathy said it's aggravating that NY politicians use library hours as a political football.

Jeff M.

Lesa said...

Thank you, Kaye. I just couldn't resist when Bill mentioned on DL that he had a few library stories. Count me as another "literary welfare bum," in more ways than one. My gosh, I take money from the government to work in the library, too!

Lesa said...

And, most amazing, Jeff, Bill could put his hands on that clipping from 1951. I have things I've kept, but I certainly couldn't find them as quickly as he did!

Unfortunately, NY politicians aren't the only ones using libraries in that way. It's so sad what has happened all over the country.

Alice Duncan said...

I love this! I grew up in Altadena, California, where we had a nice, but small, library. It was a big deal to me when my cousins would take me to the Santa Catalina Branch Library in Pasadena! I thought the SCB Library was HUGE. It's actually a relatively small branch of the BIG Pasadena Public Library. Sigh. Library memories are the best.

Bill Crider said...

Thanks for giving me the forum, Lesa, and thanks to all for the kind remarks. I should have added that another reason I love libraries (and librarians) is that they buy my books!

Lesa said...

Thank you, Alice. I just love stories about libraries. My hometown library is so much different (larger) than it used to be, but it will always be the library I remember with love.

Lesa said...

Thank you, Bill, for jumping in quickly to do this post. I think some authors (K.C. Constantine?) forget how many books libraries buy. Loved your guest blog. You're always welcome to come back for another guest posting. Love to have you back when The Wild Hog Murders is released.

Chantelle Aimee Osman said...

Thank you so much, Lesa, for all that you do for authors and readers, both here and at the library - and thank you Bill for putting up such a rousing defense. Honestly, in a million years I would have never guessed there was a anti library faction. What is the world coming to when we have to defend our access to literature?

Clea Simon said...

There is just no downside to libraries - not only as a reader, but as an author. People will take a chance on an unknown at a library and then either request more books or buy them. Either way, libraries spread the ability to read - as I said, no down side!

Thanks for running this (and yay about the cats, too).

Kris said...

Geez..even though I tend to buy my books and only use the library for audio books and cookbooks/exercise books, I still think they are wonderful and would never argue against them. Heck, I have a feeling that whenever we start a family I'll be in the library a lot!

I can just picture 2 college age men read Dr. Seuss out load, sitting in those little chairs. haha! What a great sight that would be.

Lesa said...

Wasn't Bill's defense great, Chantelle? You're right. It is a shame when we have to defend the right to use the public library.

Lesa said...

Thank you, Clea. I just couldn't resist when Bill spoke up on DL saying he had some good library stories.

Lesa said...

And, frankly, Kris, I wouldn't have kicked those two men out and shushed them. I might have invited them to read to a couple kids if there were any around right then.

Sheila Beaumont said...

Alice, I went to the Santa Catalina branch of the Pasadena library too! My best friend (still my best friend today) and I went there every week all through junior high school. With permission of our parents, we got adult library cards when we were in seventh grade. I read pretty fast, but my friend reads twice as fast as I do; I would check out seven books a week, while she would check out the maximum, 14 books!

Lesa said...

Sheila, I think that's so funny that you and Alice went to the same branch. Thanks for telling that story!

jenny milchman said...

I hope my comments on DL were read by the librarians on the list, too...These are great memories, Bill, and no one is ever too old for Dr. Seuss OR a good children's room chair.

My bottom line quote was, with only a dash of hyperbole, I may not have survived childhood without libraries.

Lesa said...


I read your comments, and I want to thank you. And, I saw that beautiful comment. I love people like you.

Naomi Johnson said...

When I was a child, my parents could not afford to buy books for us kids. So I guess that does make me one of Constantine's 'literary welfare bums.' So be it. Without libraries, few people on the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder could ever hope to rise even another rung. Every time I visit my local library I see the good they do in my community. Homework help, job search assistance, providing Internet access, and oh, yeah, books. How very nice for Constantine never to have had need of a library.

Thank heavens the voters in my city do not think as Constantine, and passed (by a 2:1 margin) a new, permanent levy to fund our local library system.

Lesa said...


You have my kind of voters. Congratulations on the new, permanent levy, and the support you have in your community. I wish all libraries could say the same, because they are all providing the kind of service you recommended.

I credit libraries for so much in my life, not just my present job. I actually think it's sad that Constantine never had need of a library.

kathy d. said...

Amen to everyone's posts! What a rousing, great defense of libraries.

The idea that anyone wouldn't want children to start off their lives visiting libraries and reading books, is too mind-boggling for me.

I probably wouldn't have made it through elementary or high school without my local libraries. I was never without a book in high school and my family couldn't have purchased them.

Now we need an "Ode to Libraries," and an "Ode to Librarians," too.

Lesa said...

I have no idea, kathy, what I would have done with my life without libraries, even as a kid. My mother & I both remember the week they house/babysat for friends, and we stayed at their big rambling house, within walking distance of the library. I went every day. After my father died, my mother moved back to town, and she lives one backyard from the library. Heaven!

Parnell Hall is the one who should be writing "Ode to Libraries." He has quite a gift that way.