J3036 was the number of my first library card at the Albany (New York) Public Library.
I distinctly remember the day I went to the Pine Hills Branch of the Albany Public Library to apply for my library card. My older sister, who had just completed second grade, had had a library card for a couple of years and, like many children, I wanted to do everything my older sibling did. At the time, there was nothing I wanted more than a library card.
My sister and some of her friends took me to the Pine Hills Branch on Madison Avenue, a three and a half block walk from home.
I don’t exactly remember the route we took to the library but, from our house on the corner of South Allen and Morris Streets, I think we walked a block along Morris Street, turned left at Emmaus United Methodist Church, and walked a short block along West Lawrence Street past the Central Market and Joe’s Butcher Shop to Madison Avenue. At Madison we would have turned right, continued past the Shell Gas Station, the Madison Theater, Clapp’s Bookstore, Stittig’s Soda Fountain, and a small drug store on the corner of Madison and South Main Avenue. After crossing South Main, we passed a row of white mansions with tall columns holding up the roofs above their porticos.
The library itself was located in a beautiful, old, two-story Victorian building adjacent to the elementary school my sister and I attended. Entering through the library’s wooden front door, a door so heavy I could barely open it myself, the first floor of the library housed the adult books. We did not remain on the first floor. Our destination was up a flight of creaky old stairs, well-worn from the shoes of countless others who had climbed these steps before, to the Children’s Section on the second floor.
The Children’s Section was a paradise of books with benches and tables scattered throughout. Shafts of bright sunlight filtered through wavy glass windows overlooking stately American Elms. My sister and I approached the librarian’s desk in the center of the library where sat a middle-aged librarian with dark, wavy hair flecked with gray, filing cards. The librarian spied at us over the top of a pair of quintessentially librarianesque half glasses connected to a gold chain around her neck.
“How can I help you?” the librarian asked. The name tag on her blouse read “Mrs. Katzman”.
“I’d like to apply for a library card,” I said, politely. Politeness was important in a library, I had decided.
“Are you at least six years old?” Mrs. Katzman asked.
“Yes,” I answered.
“Are you able to sign your name?” Mrs. Katzman probed, a hint of doubt in her voice as she sized me up, gazing first through her glasses, and then over them.
“Yes,” I answered.
Mrs. Katzman gave me an application to fill out with my name, address, telephone number, and date of birth.
“Someone else can help you fill out the form, but you must sign the application yourself on the back of the card. I can only issue you a library card if you can sign your own name,” Mrs. Katzman instructed. “Do you understand?” she asked.
“Yes,” I answered.
I took the form to a table near the encyclopedias. My sister promptly took the card from me and filled out all the information on the front.
“Now print your name on the back,” my sister instructed. “And remember to start your name with a capital letter.”
“Start my name with a WHAT?” I asked. I wasn’t sure what a capital letter was. “Do you mean a BIG letter?” I asked her.
“Oh, he can’t do it,” one of my sister’s friends said smugly. “He’s too little.”
“Here, just let me do it,” my sister said, and then she began to print my name on the back of the card where Mrs. Katzman instructed me to sign.
“But I’M supposed to do that!” I panicked. Mrs. Katzman was never going to give me a library card if my sister signed my name for me!
“There,” my sister said, finishing my name. “Now take the card to the desk and get your library card.”
“But I didn’t sign it myself!” I whispered.
“Just tell her you did,” my sister told me.
“You mean you want me to LIE?” I asked, incredulous.
“Just go,” she said, and she gave me a little shove toward the librarian’s desk.
I brought the forged application to Mrs. Katzman, who inspected the application to verify that all spaces on the card were properly completed. Then, she turned the card over and looked at the printed signature.
Mrs. Katzman knew the handwriting of a second grader when she saw it, and this was the handwriting of a second grader. There was no way a child who has only completed Kindergarten could print his name as neatly as his sister who had completed second grade. I was doomed. I would probably be banished for life from the library, my hopes of obtaining a library card crumbling away before my eyes like so many Autumn leaves.
“Did you sign this yourself?” Mrs. Katzman asked, sternly.
“Yes,” I lied.
“Well then, Stephen, I’d like you to sign your name again. Right here in front of me. In the space just above the place you signed the first time,” Mrs. Katzman said.
With a bit of uncertainty, I picked up one of the short yellow library pencils and began to print my name. Slowly and carefully, I printed a big letter “S”. Then, I carefully printed “t-e-p-h-e-n” in small letters. Next, a big “D” followed by “a-n-k-o”, again in small letters.
I handed the application back to Mrs. Katzman. She looked at my signature and her mouth dropped open a little. She brought the application over to another librarian, whispered something, and showed her the card. I trembled a little and looked around for my sister. She was nowhere to be seen.
Mrs. Katzman returned to the desk, pulled out a little blue library card with the number J3036 printed on it. She wrote my name on the card, and said, “You may check out no more three books at a time. You may keep the books for two weeks. The books will be stamped with the date they are due back in the library. If you return a book late, you will be charged 2 cents each day the book is overdue”.
“Oh, I won’t be late,” I promised her.
“Very well,” Mrs. Katzman said, removing the half glasses from the bridge of her nose, allowing them to dangle from the gold chain. “Welcome to the library, Stephen,” she said, now smiling.
I looked around again for my sister to show her my new library card. I may have lied to Mrs. Katzman but, in the end, I did sign the application myself. As I left the desk, I heard Mrs. Katzman say to the other librarian “I guess he really did sign it himself”. I looked over my shoulder and saw the two of them still looking at my signature on the library card application.
I spent a lot of time at the library over the next several years. Mrs. Katzman always remembered my name and often went out of her way to help me find books she thought I might enjoy. Even after I had advanced to the adult section downstairs, whenever Mrs. Katzman saw me, she greeted me by name. Over the years, more than anyone else, Mrs. Katzman instilled in me a joy for reading.
In honor of National Women’s History Month, I’ve written a biography of Mrs. Katzman in six words:
She taught children to love books.
Written for the Carnival of Genealogy.
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Copyright © 2008 by Stephen J. Danko