Remote Access: Small Public Libraries in Arkansas (2021), by Sabine Schmidt and Don House

My first memory of a library is from the summer of 1951, when I was four. My parents had bought a small farm south of Cabool, Missouri. The farm would hardly have supported a family in good times, but we scraped by with Dad’s earnings as an electrician.

In 1952, we sold out at auction. The famous five-year drought was well underway. Ponds dried up and cattle were so hungry they tried to eat the leaves off of oak trees—also dried up.

A gravel road ran in front of our house, and to the west it connected with what is now State Highway 181. A Texas County bookmobile parked at that corner, and I remember walking down there with my mother. The distance might have been a quarter-mile but seemed to go on forever into scary, dry country. I was so small I could hardly negotiate the steps up into the truck, but there I was greeted with rows and rows of multi-colored books.

When I learned that I could check out anything I wanted, it seemed impossible. It didn’t seem as if I should be allowed into this rare kingdom of books. The world started to open up for me.

Schmidt and House spent three years on their crusade to celebrate such magic, visiting twenty-one small libraries in all regions of Arkansas. They visited what is apparently the smallest “freestanding library” in the United States, in Norman. It’s 14’ by 12’, but packed with ideas and dedicated people. It even offers Internet access, a chief attraction deep in the Arkansas woods.

Some libraries, though certainly not large, are rather grand. For instance, there’s the sprawling Eureka Springs Library, a Carnegie building built into a stony hill and, over the years, expanding into nearby buildings to accommodate heavy use and Internet access. The Charleston library, with its stonework entryway and arches, and the expansive rooms within, seems like a poor man’s cathedral.

Most of the libraries, however, are quite modest, operating out of trailers or defunct schools, adjacent to the police station or in a row of closed stores. These seem like the last outposts of civilization for their dying towns, and the keepers of the flame are often poorly-paid part-timers or retirees, as much social workers as guardians of the book. Some are not librarians but simply good citizens, like the Chief of Police, Gary Ricker, in Greenland. Ricker engineered a pedestrian bridge between a housing complex and city services, bringing unity to disarray.

The format for each of the twenty-one chapters is always the same: Schmidt does her color photos of the libraries, inside and out, as well as representative sights or buildings around the town. She interweaves an essay packed with the history of the place: when freed slaves came to the area, or when all the timber was cut. Where the railroad used to run. The road where people uprooted by the Indian Removal Act trudged through on their forced march to Oklahoma.

House works in black and white to photograph the librarians and random customers. The subjects are uber-ordinary: old and young, proud and tired and confused. They seem poor, for the most part, and nice. Some faces are etched in sorrow. Kids yuck it up.

His essays are more impressionistic than Schmidt’s. He tells of the people he meets, such as an addled woman trying to hitchhike some sixty miles to Fayetteville, or the old, old woman who knows everything, such as why and where the pharmacist hanged himself. Sometimes, Schmidt lifts his voice in outrage, as when he observes a driver  who deliberately swerves to kill a dog.

Altogether, the reader is left with a vivid portrait not only of these libraries, but the places where they reside. And with something else not so easily defined. In his fine introduction, Robert Cochran compares the photographers’ work to that of James Agee and Margaret Bourke-White, who documented the Depression-era South with their haunting prose and photographs, respectively. Schmidt and House’s people are joyous as well as sorrowful, and hunger doesn’t seem to be a problem, but these rural patrons are hanging on to life in bad times, and the libraries, and the tireless librarians, offer hope and respite for besieged souls.

To take another view, these little libraries are often filled with junk. They operate on small book budgets and tend to buy romances and bestsellers. There are often more DVDs than books because, if there is no Internet in your house, you can’t stream anything. Even if Internet is available, it’s expensive. Of course, nowadays, public libraries are only somewhat about books. They’re gathering places. Focal points.

And I’m confident—I’m thinking now of a small library I’m well-acquainted with, the Dade County Library in Greenfield, Missouri—that all of these libraries provide serendipity. That matters a lot.

I remember eighth grade in Mountain Grove, where we read John Steinbeck’s “The Red Pony” bound into the textbook. For convenience, I checked out the standalone copy from the public library, and the teacher said, “Does your mother know you’re reading this?”

As if my mother would have cared.

It seems the school version had been censored, cutting out details about the death of one colt, the delivery of another going all wrong as the mare dies. That realism is probably why I’ve always loved Steinbeck, but anyhow obtaining the true version of the story from the public library alerted me to the fact there are moralists everywhere, trying to keep the truth from you, trying to decide what you should see or read. That little eighth grade event made me a lifelong enemy of censorship, and began to turn me into a writer.

REMOTE ACCESS is a fine book. With so many beautiful photographs, it’s hard to imagine how Arkansas can sell it, an art book, for $45. Buy it, and visit these wonderful little libraries one at a time, as you might read a story in a collection. You’ll end up planning some road trips.

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