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Texas Reader

One for the Books

Then and now, RoseAleta Laurell—the famous librarian on the roof—keeps children turning the pages

Growing up on a North Carolina tobacco farm two miles from the nearest paved road, RoseAleta Laurell’s routine childhood existence of sleeping, going to school and working did little to ease her increasing sense of isolation. It was the bookmobile that stopped on the blacktop that opened the world for the little girl and led to her career as a librarian. But no, not the stereotypical quiet librarian.

In 1989, Laurell arrived in Lockhart as director for the small Central Texas town’s public library. Her gregarious personality and an unorthodox fundraising scheme became the stuff of legend, inspiring author M.G. King to pen a children’s book—Librarian on the Roof! A True Story—about the self-described “lunatic librarian.” In the book, King describes Laurell’s arrival as “a clatter of heels on the floor and eyelashes as long as bird feathers.”

Not surprisingly, the new librarian took Lockhart by storm in her determination to liven up the “quiet-please” library. The Dr. Eugene Clark Library, built in 1899, is the oldest continuously operating library in Texas. The two-story red brick building with limestone trim features classic revival architecture. It originally included a lyceum, or hall, making it the cultural center for the region. And the stage, illuminated by rays of light filtering through a central stained-glass window, was once graced by the presence of President William Howard Taft and opera soprano Dorothy Sarnoff.

By the time Laurell arrived, the venerable library was no longer the center of community life. It didn’t reflect her philosophy: “Everyone should love coming to the library. The rich, the poor, the farmers, the townsfolk. We’re here for grownups and for children.” So her next question—“By the way, where ARE the children?”—led to the stunt that would make her a celebrity.

Laurell decided what the library really needed was a section just for children. She dreamed big. More picture books, mystery books, adventure books, child-size tables, comfortable chairs, colorful artwork and computers. She poured her energy into raising the $20,000 it would take to make her dream a reality.

She knew it would take more than bake sales to raise that kind of money. “I visited every single classroom in every single school in Lockhart to ask for their pennies, nickels and dimes,” she says. But it wasn’t enough.

So she concocted the seemingly ridiculous idea of residing on the library’s roof for seven days and seven nights. With grit and determination, she decided to personally carry out her peculiar plan. In her cigarette smoking-induced raspy, contagious laugh, she remembers, “Well, it’s not like it was something I could ask someone else to do!”

On Monday, October 16, 2000, the flamboyant Laurell—donning fluorescent pink rain gear, a gold hard hat, and, as she says, “enough jewelry to sink the Titanic”—stepped into the basket of a Lower Colorado River Authority bucket truck and was hoisted 50 feet high to her perch atop the library. Carrying only the essentials, including a tent, a laptop computer, two cellphones, a bullhorn and a slingshot to launch water balloons at the kids below, Laurell announced: “I will stay on this roof until we have raised enough money for our children’s section.”

Food was delivered in buckets by a pulley system. At night, Laurell hunkered down in a tent tethered to the rails around the domed roof, waiting for the next day’s opportunity to create a spectacle for the scores of media and onlookers who showed up to witness her antics.

On Tuesday, a check for $10,000 arrived, but Thursday brought a different surprise. After an 18-month drought, wicked weather opened the skies of Caldwell County and drenched Laurell. Buffeted by great gusts of wind, and despite the threat of tornadoes, she remained on the roof. In her lyrical Southern twang, she remembers, “I thought for sure I had angered the weather gods, and they were trying to drive me off the roof! But then I decided it would just be much more fun to take credit for ending the drought.”

By week’s end, the proud librarian had exceeded her goal, raising nearly $40,000. Included in the donations were sacks of pennies, nickels and dimes from area schoolchildren, delivered from the back of an old pickup truck in the midst of fanfare.

Today, the children’s area that Laurell so desperately fought to create is a reality. Best of all, King writes, you will always find crowds of children who love to read and learn inside these historic walls.

Laurell’s work and studies eventually took her away from Lockhart. She is now director for the Bell/Whittington Library in the Texas coastal town of Portland. She believes that libraries are taking on a new role as resource centers for navigating life. For example, she says, some people need to know how to fill out their Social Security forms. Others need information about how to raise pigs and goats and chickens. Others need Internet access.

“Libraries are really not where you find the wealthy,” Laurell says. “The people we make the real difference for are the people who are struggling in this complicated, technically driven, high-powered, fast-moving world.”

Laurell, 63, is working toward a Certificate of Advanced Studies with an emphasis on small, rural libraries from the University of North Texas. Her goal is to obtain a doctorate degree, focusing on service to rural communities.

Laurell describes herself as a “flamboyant character who has been called everything from an embarrassment to a constant source of humor”—traits that make the book written about her a delightful read. King’s book, published in 2010 by Albert Whitman & Company and illustrated by cartoonist Stephen Gilpin, represented Texas on the 2010 National Book Festival’s “52 Great Reads” list.

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Connie Strong is a freelance writer based in Chappell Hill.