A Woman of the Word

As 10,000 of the nation's librarians assembled in Philadelphia this weekend for the American Library Assn.'s meeting, Helen Myers slowly trooped four icy blocks down Green Street from her home in little Ellisville, Ill., to the crumbling shack she's stubbornly maintained since 1966 as her community's lone beacon for reading in a world of glazed TV watchers.

Ever since her mother began reading to her in the crib three-quarters of a century ago, the woman known simply as Helen has relished the power of books to excite, educate and ignite imaginations. She read to both her daughters, who read to their children, who now read to theirs. Books do that to children and families.

In the early 1960s, Helen set about creating an Ellisville library in an all-but-abandoned shanty along the fabled Spoon River. Founding a library took years in a hard-working rural culture that doesn't prize idle sitting. Helen's story, told with fatigue but no complaint, highlights the financial and intellectual challenges facing America's 16,298 public libraries, especially the small ones. It also speaks to the quiet courage and stamina of one determined woman.

Like Ellisville (population 86), Helen's public library is small -- 10 feet by 14 feet. It totals 2,588 books, counting a bag of recent donations. Its staff is her. Her challenges are many. In 1966, Floyd Blout donated lumber from his sawmill. Her late husband, Kenneth, built shelves. Mose Glore painted a sign. Keith Sullivan, who was 83, climbed up and fixed the roof. Now the floor sags; Helen slid plywood under a tilting case.

Then there are the bills -- $100 a year for liability insurance, $50 a year for propane heat and $16.10 a month for lights, which Helen covers from her Social Security check. "I don't miss the money that much," she says. "And somebody might come by and read." From occasional donations (Box 92, Ellisville, IL 61431), Helen built a small library savings account. She dreams of buying the building someday. She abandoned Storybook Time when Saturday cartoons did her in. "Parents just let TV feed kids' heads," she says. But Helen decorates the window and when someone pauses, she jumps out the door and says, "Want a book?"

She's cut library hours to two a week. But if anyone phones her at home, she comes right over. Some weeks one person shows, maybe the Gilmore boy. Most weeks, none do. Helen's salary is nil. But her earnings are huge. "When I see a youngster walk out reading," she says, "golly, nothing can top that."

Helen was at her librarian's desk as usual this week. She waited the full two hours -- actually, a few minutes more -- before heading home. No one came. Maybe next week, she told herself. Maybe next week.

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