Once or twice a year we go to a university library. We must if we want something even slightly obscure, because we can’t buy all of our books, and these superb libraries are open to the public for a small fee. We look for vintage mysteries, letters and autobiographies of historical figures, quirky 1960s feminist books, and the humorous stories of George Ade. Today I came home with a very good haul: Mary Norton’s Bread and Butter Stories (Virago), Jocelyn Playfair’s A House in the Country (Persephone), Jill Paton Walsh’s Knowledge of Angels (a Booker Prize finalist from the ’80s), and a tatty out-of-print 1925 novel, The Celestial City, by Baroness Orczy.
I never made it out of the British lit section.
I love browsing. Look at the photo of these wonderful stacks of British and Canadian literature. They fill a large, long room on the top floor. The American literature and the foreign languages were recently transferred to the basement because of a mould problem. There are also two floors devoted to what I call “tech books.” When desperate, you can check out something with math in it, or teach yourself organic chemistry.
I hate the flourescent lighting, which turns everything a weird yellow. I wish they would update it. But you can sit in the lovely reading areas, alcoves with natural light. And I have seen worse. In the beautiful town of Bloomington, Indiana, the university library has an astonishing collection but no windows above the second floor. We used to read in a glassed-in smoking lounge for the natural light, though we didn’t smoke. No one was all that upset about smoking in those days.
There are some stunning public libraries in the midwest, but ours is not one of them. It is good for the newest books, but they have discarded so many, many wonderful old books that I despair. All the books by Angela Thirkell have been weeded. I checked them out regularly, but they are still gone. You will seldom, if ever, find a Virago, a Persephone, a Europa, or university press book. I did persuade them to order a few NYRB titles, and I give them credit for that. They are open to suggestions. But they have moved all the books by early twentieth-century writers Ruth Suckow and Bess Streeter Aldrich, both born in Iowa, to the non-circulating Iowa stacks. I am bewildered by that. Heavens, there is a Ruth Suckow Memorial Association and her birthplace in Hawarden, Iowa, is a museum.
Oh, well, I digress. Back to the university library! We looked at the Grant Wood murals, commissioned by the Iowa State University Library in the 1930s.
Grant Wood (1892-1942), the regionalist artist best known for American Gothic, planned and coordinated this series of WPA murals. He was appointed head of the Public Works of Art Project for Iowa, a federal program providing work for unemployed artists. Wood designed the murals, while other artists did the enlargements and the painting. The theme was inspired by the following quote by Daniel Webster: “When tillage begins, other arts follow. The farmers, therefore, are the founders of human civilization.”
Above is a painting of a veterinarian getting ready to give a shot to a pig! There is a school of agriculture and a veterinary medicine school. (N.B.: It is sometimes known as Moo U.) And, by the way, you should read Jane Smiley’s Moo, a satire of a school like Iowa State, where she used to teach.
This man chopping wood is a detail from another mural.
Who knew you could have so much fun at a library!