“What did the library box look like?”
The question came up last week when I visited a book group to discuss the 3rd Chloe Ellefson mystery, The Light Keeper’s Legacy. A library box is featured prominently in the story, linking the historical timeline to the modern one.
A reproduction library box also happens to be my favorite object in Pottawatomie Lighthouse. When I give tours as a volunteer docent, I never fail to share it with guests.
Joseph St. Andre, who once lived at a lighthouse, explained the system in Living at Lighthouse: Oral Histories From the Great Lakes. “The Lighthouse Service had lending libraries. …Boats would take the box from one station to another one. You had no choice of what library you were going to get. …They were good books.”
The lending libraries arrived in sturdy wooden cases, constructed to withstand the strain of transport from one lighthouse to the next.
I’ve heard and read about how precious these traveling trunks were. There may not have been a school accessible to the lighthouse children, especially in the 19th century. At Pottawatomie Lighthouse in Rock Island State Park, setting for The Light Keeper’s Legacy, two women taught school in the cellar during their time there. They no doubt welcomed each fresh installment of reading materials.
But the libraries contained more than school books. Lighthouse families were often isolated, with long evenings to fill. The librarians who filled the trunks took care to provide a variety of books for all age readers.
Light keepers and their families took pride in being well-educated. It’s easy for me to imagine how exciting the arrival of the supply ship was. Forget the lamp oil and dried peas; I’d make straight for the new library.
Mr. St. Andre echoed that sentiment when he was interviewed: “…Every time we’d get a library we’d start reading a book and everybody’d grab a book and sit in the corner and read. But you didn’t want to take somebody’s placemarker out of it, that was criminal.”