I just finished reading Library Girls of New York, Carolyn Rhodes’s 2019 memoir of growing up in two New York City libraries. I had no clue that Andrew Carnegie provided an apartment above NYC libraries for the custodian and his family to live in. But there’s a lot I didn’t know until I read her book.
You’d think that such an upbringing—no picket fence, no grassy yard, no flowerbeds—could be a reason for an under-privileged childhood . . . quite the opposite for author Rhodes!
Carolyn writes of the many unique opportunities living in the Tompkins Square library. She played in the nearby tree-lined park, experienced “terrifying” and also great teachers in the public school, and witnessed her dad intercepting bullies when one would follow her home from school. She also got to sit on the lap of Carl Sandburg.
Carolyn saw firsthand what it was like to work hard seeing what her dad did every day. His day started early, 4:00 a.m., to stoke the fire in the basement to heat the entire library which would open later that morning. He was on call 24/7 to oversee all aspects of the library, from carpentry to keeping rowdy kids in line. Carolyn’s mother also displayed that underlying work ethic. As a former seamstress for New York’s Bergdorf Goodman department store, Carolyn’s mother continued to make all the clothes for her and her two sisters.
I met Carolyn at Curtis High School, Staten Island, NY. Despite classmates asking her, “You live in the liberry?” (We all said “liberry”) we both became cheerleaders, which in itself, was a competitive feat just to make the prestigious squad. She told me of practicing her jumps and cartwheels in the library, among the bookshelves, when it was closed on Sundays. We instantly formed a bond; although quite different, she was short and I was tall, she lived in the “liberry” and I lived on the hill with the grassy yard.
I’m truly grateful to learn the details of Carolyn’s upbringing and education outside of school, 60 years later, through her memoir. I highly recommend this book.
Library Girls of New York: A Secret Place by Carolyn Rhodes. Borgo Publishing, December 2019.
Reviewer bio: Suzanne G. Beyer, a resident of Bothell, WA, is the former Associate Editor for Seattle’s Northwest Prime Time, co-author of the book, The Inventor’s Fortune Up For Grabs, and writes nonfiction articles for national magazines.