National Library Week is April 9 – 15, 2017, and this year’s theme is “Libraries Transform.” At BookPage, we celebrate the contributions of libraries and librarians every day, but this is an extra-special time of year to honor those who promote literacy all across the nation. Romalyn Tilghman’s debut novel, To the Stars Through Difficulties, is the story of three women who create a library and arts center after a tornado devastates a small Kansas town, inspired by the real-life frontier women who helped stock the 59 libraries funded by Andrew Carnegie in early 20th-century Kansas. Tilghman’s novel opens with a quote from Carnegie that says it all: “A library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people. It is a never failing spring in the desert.”
My father insists my first trip to the library happened a few minutes after I learned to talk. Exaggeration, perhaps, but I do remember library visits before I learned to read. The Peevish Penguin was the family favorite, and we renewed it repeatedly. Later, I lived in the Nancy Drew section of the library, until I graduated to biographies of Clara Barton, Jane Addams and Amelia Earhart. The library was a Carnegie library, and my elementary school was named after the first librarian who served there. In other words, I grew up in and around and through that Carnegie library in Manhattan, Kansas, finding inspiration in the stories I found there.
Manhattan was a big city compared to most of the 59 Kansas communities that received grants from Andrew Carnegie at the beginning of the 20th century. Right there, across the Plains, before the arrival of indoor plumbing or the Model T, a literary movement took hold.
Early in my career, I visited many of those communities, not for the libraries but for the burgeoning arts councils that were forming across the state. I was struck by the dedication of volunteers who were determined to bring cultural opportunities to their communities, some who were turning their Carnegie libraries into arts centers. Places like Dodge City, Goodland and Lawrence. Determined and innovative in their efforts, they hounded the local banker for contributions and asked local farmers to dedicate “a bushel for the arts.” It didn’t take long to see similarities between these (mostly women) volunteers and their foremothers who’d managed to get Carnegie libraries in their towns.
As I traveled, I stashed pieces of information and anecdotes from those Carnegie library arts centers. When it came to write, I decided on fiction. I invented Angelina, a Ph.D. candidate in library science who sleuths the historical library minutes. I invented Traci, a hip and feisty artist-in-residence who brings the arts center to life in a contemporary setting. And I invented Gayle, a tornado survivor, who demonstrates what is most important when rebuilding a community from scratch. With the help of a journal from 1910, these three characters convey the strength and wisdom and determination of women who change their communities, as they are changed themselves.
Now we carry the world’s knowledge in our pockets and access culture on our laptops, but these buildings still burst with energy. As I popped into libraries to do research, I was inspired by people looking for jobs, checking newspapers, researching genealogy, reading to kids, grabbing the latest bestseller. Toddlers who skipped in and seniors who struggled with canes. The same diversity is true of arts centers where kindergartners dance to hip hop in one room as a barbershop quartet sings show tunes in another, or teenagers make graphic murals as quilters piece paisleys. These cultural centers, both literary and artistic, thrive with life, inspire those who enter, give us a window to the greater world and a mirror on ourselves.
The dedication page of my novel, To the Stars Through Difficulties, has a single vintage photo: the Carnegie library in Manhattan, Kansas. To that library, I owe so much.
Author photo credit Rachel Warecki.