I THOUGHT today of the Andrew Carnegie library in Olean, the small town in southwestern New York where I grew up. When ideas are buzzing about in my head, bumbling into one another, swarming to create an image, it is easy to remember that wonderful library, for there I borrowed my first book from the children's room. On that long-ago day when I found out I was old enough to borrow books, my mother allowed me to walk alone to the ``libarry.'' As excited as I had ever been, I walked the four blocks up State Street hill to stand before the square gray building.
It stands now as it did then, one of the loveliest buildings in my memory, with its arched entrance and rounded windows enhanced by granite swags and shields. Once inside, my hand reached up to the smooth dark railing to help me climb the marble steps of the curving stairway. At the top I entered, hushed, a long room encircled by books waiting to be opened.
Lit by tall windows, the room with its cushioned chairs and low benches might have popped out of one of the oversized books.
Silence wrapped me cocoon-like. Kneeling beside the lowest shelves, I removed a mysterious volume and lost myself to a new consciousness. Within this room I wandered continents.
Until I was old enough to read the ``downstairs books,'' I read of queens and life-size dolls, of soup that spilled into the street, of rooms hidden in treetops. Here was my special universe not very far from home. Then, when the time came, I embraced the world of the downstairs books with their complexities and their broader visions.
But it was in the children's room that I began my love affair with words -- slippery words, silvery words, verbs that were nouns and nouns that were verbs -- all of them vibrating together in a delightful way. Words became the shim to settle uneven thoughts and the gauge to measure orderly ones. Thousands of words -- willowy, filigree, gallery, madrigal, damosel, celery, chisel, and riffle, and rain -- enough to fill buckets and boxcars and buildings ... each new word to be saved, to become part of a treasure I would spend over and over again.
I am grateful for my lifelong companionship with books, and for this happy affiliation I would like to thank Andrew Carnegie. Born in 1835, he gave, in his lifetime, $56 million to build more than 2,500 libraries. Seventeen hundred were built in the United States, and one of these kept me warm and dry while kindling my curiosity and expanding the confines of my world.
Many years after my discovery of the children's room at the Olean public library, I walked into another room, this one populated by three grandchildren, all three reading books from a small-town library in Florida. One child was doubled into a chair, one stretched out on the floor, and one knelt before a book opened out before him on the sofa. ``Listen to this,'' the smallest said, and I listened.
Thank you, Mr. Carnegie.