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I took a “Vacation Tour” across 13 states as a fifth grader during the summer of 1953. It was a journey I’ve never forgotten even though in reality I hardly left home except for almost daily trips to the South Community Library with my best friend and fellow traveler, Roxy.

Best of all, the journey was free, and we could move at our own speed, unhampered by parents or other adults.

The library, built in 1952 at 16th Street and Park Avenue, was five blocks from our homes at 16th and Travis streets, so it was a simple matter to get there by bike or on foot. Either way, we were on a journey, checking out and reading our way through the children and teen sections as rapidly as possible.

My total for the summer was 62 books. I know that for a fact because the books I read are listed on the back of the “Vacation Tour” map of the United States that I’ve kept all these years along with other bits of memorabilia from my childhood.

The books were listed by author and title and logged on by the librarian who checked our progress each time we returned the latest pile of books. Some titles from the list include “Custer’s Last Stand,” “Cowboy Joe of the Circus,” “Steamboat South,” “Venture West” and “Lassie Come Home.” There also are lots of biographies, likely from a series for young people that were a quick read and easily recognized by their orange covers. Among the titles were: Pocohantas; Davy Crockett, Robert E. Lee, A. Lincoln, Abigail Adams, Jane Adams, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, and George Washington.

I do not remember Roxy’s total or the books she read, but I’m betting her list was about the same as mine.

The South branch, its fate in question during the last year due to budget concerns, continued for years to be our go-to place for everything from books for pleasure to information for school papers. While Encyclopedia Britannica graced the shelves in many homes back then, my family was less fortunate and only got a Funk & Wagnall’s much later in my life when the local IGA was selling them one each week as an in-store promotion.

My first encounters with the South branch occurred when it was still located in an old World War I barracks in Powell Park along West Avenue. At the time we lived on Johnson Street, about two blocks from the park and easily walkable even for 5- or 6-year-olds. Humble by today’s standards, the library then was a place of mystery. Silence was the rule, and it was strictly enforced.

The books filling the shelves were a wonder to see, but best of all was the stereoscope viewer and photo slides that resided on a low table along the back wall with chairs just the right size for young children. The slides themselves were an eclectic collection of scenes of lands and people from faraway places that had a three-dimensional effect when viewed through the stereoscope lens.

The times have changed radically since those days, and libraries have changed with them. The books, the encyclopedias and other reference materials still are there, but these days there are banks of computers available for public use and even the card catalog and checkout are electronic.

With television, home computers and smartphones so accessible, it may seem like today’s children can “travel” the world without the help of a library. But if you ask any librarian or any kid at any local library they likely will tell you that a library is still a place of infinite possibility and adventure. And being able to walk there is a bonus, especially in neighborhoods where not every kid has his or her own computer or electronic tablet or even a parent able or willing to provide transportation.

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Gayda Hollnagel covered education and religion for the La Crosse Tribune before retiring in 2006. She also is co-author of “A History of La Crosse, Wisconsin, in the Twentieth Century: Reinventing La Crosse Again and Again.”

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Digital news editor

(1) comment

allcav

Libraries aren't "free," except from maybe a fifth grader's perspective.

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