How Living In A Library Gave One Man 'The Thirst Of Learning'

Oct 13, 2017
Originally published on October 13, 2017 2:03 pm

When he was younger, Ronald Clark lived in the library.

Literally.

Decades ago, custodians who worked in the New York Public Library often lived in the buildings with their families. Clark's father, Raymond, was one of those custodians, and he and his family lived on the top floor of the Washington Heights branch in upper Manhattan. They moved there in 1949, when Ronald was 15 years old. In the 1970s, he raised his daughter, Jamilah, in the same apartment until she was 5.

The job of library custodian, Ronald tells Jamilah at StoryCorps, is like being "the keeper of the temple of knowledge."

"In some libraries, it's all chewing gum wrappers and dust. My dad's library, you saw nothing but wax. He would even wax the tops of the bookshelves," Ronald says. "And when you walked up those stairs and looked down on the book stacks, they gleamed."

At first, Ronald says, he was ashamed of his unusual home. "[Y]ou always want to be normal. I never invited any of my friends to visit," he says. Still, he says, nobody else had as many books as he had.

And once the library closed for the day, he reveled in being the only kid in the building.

"I could run and scream and jump and yell. And if I had any question about anything, I would get up in the middle of the night, go down, get out a book, read until 3 o'clock in the morning," he says. "I began to realize how great I had it because the library gave me the thirst of learning — and this just never left me."

He says his time living in the library shaped the man he would become.

He was the first in his family to graduate from high school, and after college, he got a position as a professor teaching history at Cape Cod Community College.

"I took my dad, and I showed him the classroom and my name on the door — Professor Clark. He just nodded. You know how Daddy is, quiet. But ... I saw the way he looked at it," Ronald says. "He wanted me to have higher horizons, and I can hardly even imagine what my life would've been like had I not lived in the library."

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Liyna Anwar.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

In StoryCorps this morning, we are hearing from a family who lived inside a library. Back in the 1940s, custodians who worked in the New York Public Library often lived in the buildings with their families. Ronald Clark's father, Raymond, was one of those custodians. And for three decades, he lived with his family on the top floor of a branch in Upper Manhattan. At StoryCorps, Ronald talked to his daughter about how growing up in the library shaped his life.

RONALD CLARK: As a child, I always thought I was rich. And one day at the dinner table, I said something like, I'm so glad we're rich. And my father almost choked. And my mother said, well, honey we're not exactly rich. And Dad said, we're poor. You understand? (Laughter) We're poor. And then they offered my dad the position as the library custodian. And my father was the keeper of the temple of knowledge. In some libraries, you saw chewing gum wrappers and dust. My dad's library - you saw nothing but wax. He would even wax the tops of the bookshelves. And when you walked up those stairs and looked down on the book stacks, they gleamed.

JAMILAH CLARK: Did you realize how different your home was from your friends?

R. CLARK: Well, at first, I was kind of ashamed of it as a child because you always want to be normal. I never invited any of my friends to visit. They would always say, this guy lives in the library. I mean, he literally lives in the library. You know, but nobody else had as many books as I had. You had to be very quiet during the day. But once the library closed, I was the only kid in the building. I could run and scream and jump and yell. And if I had any question about anything, I would get up in the middle of the night, go down, get out a book, read until 3 o'clock in the morning.

I began to realize how great I had it because the library gave me the thirst of learning. And this just never left me. Coming from a family in which nobody had ever graduated from high school, much less gone on to college, I was the first one. After I graduated, I got a position teaching at a college. I took my dad. And I showed him the classroom and my name on the door, Professor Clark. He just nodded. You know how Daddy is quiet. But I saw the way he looked at it. He wanted me to have higher horizons. And I can hardly even imagine what my life would have been like had I not lived in the library.

(SOUNDBITE OF JULIAN VELARD'S "BEEN THIS STRANGE")

GREENE: Ronald and Jamilah Clark for StoryCorps in New York City. Their conversation will be archived in another library, the Library of Congress. And it will be featured in the StoryCorps podcast. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.