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Check it out.

Byline: BOB KEEFER The Register-Guard

BLUE RIVER - Frances O'Brien hated library rules. How could anyone presume to tell you, the young schoolteacher wondered, how many books you needed to check out at once? And due dates! What if it took you longer than just two weeks to read a book? What then?

So when O'Brien started a lending library in 1928 by leaving a pile of books on the front porch of her home here, it didn't have any rules. No due dates. No overdue fines. No cards, no forms to fill out, no restrictions. Not even hours.

Even after it had moved into its own building, a few steps from her front porch, O'Brien's library stayed open 24 hours a day. The door was never locked.

This was its only rule: You want a book, you borrow it. When you're done, you bring it back.

For 75 years now, the little community of Blue River, on the northern bank of the McKenzie River about 40 miles east of Springfield, has done just that. Loggers have stopped in, sometimes at 4 a.m., to check out something to read. Schoolchildren have found Dr. Seuss and Nancy Drew. Housewives have wandered by to borrow paperback romance novels from the library section that's still called "Purple Passion."

Supported enthusiastically by its little community, O'Brien's library outgrew her front porch and moved into the kitchen. In 1975, she built a 24-foot-by-32-foot building, which the Lions Club expanded in the 1980s.

O'Brien died in 1995 at the age of 93, but the library that now bears her name is still thriving, still free and still has no return dates or overdue fines for the nearly 40,000 books lining its shelves.

While reality has intruded to a small degree - the door is locked now at night, following some teen vandalism a few years ago - you can still walk in, check a book out yourself and bring it back when you're good and ready.

And that's how it ought to be, said Ellen Sather, the president of the library's volunteer board of directors. She also is a former professional librarian who is accustomed to computer indexes (the O'Brien Library, as you might have already guessed, doesn't own a single computer) and lots and lots of library policies.

"Conventional libraries - I'm trying to think how to put this - sometimes are so protective of their books that they put barriers to reading," Sather said. "Charging fines. Having stringent overdue dates. Continually cutting hours. Mrs. O'Brien literally thought the library should be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It was more important for people to read than to have rules. If they kept the books, they must have wanted them a lot. Isn't that a great attitude?"

Sather now oversees an all-volunteer staff of about two dozen, many of them gray of hair, and a set of books roughly one-tenth the size of the collection that will grace the new Eugene Public Library.

The O'Brien Library has no plans for a formal 75th birthday party. "I thought we'd celebrate our 75th anniversary the whole year," Sather said.

The little library has one of the few old-fashioned library card files still in use anywhere. Each book is indexed according to the Dewey Decimal System and is represented by a 3-by-5-inch card, nearly all of them handwritten, though a few are typed - on a typewriter, of course.

Every Wednesday morning, a handful of volunteers assembles to index books. Among them often is Helen Juza, who's been working here for, "oh, 20 or 30 years," is how she puts it. She arrived in Blue River with her husband in 1952, when the community marked the end of the road heading east from Eugene in winter.

"Everybody knew Mrs. O'Brien," she recalled. "Everybody thought she was great. When we worked at the little library before the big library was built, she made us lunch. We would work three or four hours and then she fed us lunch. Every day, she made something new. I still have some of her recipes."

The main thing with O'Brien, Juza said, was reading.

"She just thought people should read. That was her idea, that everybody should read. She didn't really care what they read. She figured once they got started reading, they would grow to bigger and better things. If they started with Purple Passion - that's OK."

The library hit the national news in 1983, when CBS roving newsman Charles Kuralt featured the library in a short installment on his popular show "On the Road With Charles Kuralt." Kuralt himself never came to Blue River for the story, but O'Brien had a great time with the production crew, showing them proudly around the town and feeding them.

O'Brien, who never owned a television set in her life, said she loved the show but still wouldn't buy a television.

"I was very pleased with the show," she said later. "Especially the fact that they showed the river up here. The library doesn't need the publicity as much as our local business people need the advertisement."

Over the years, the library's collection mysteriously grew. People who borrowed one book would return two or three. Boxes of books arrived in the dead of night. After the Kuralt story, more books arrived with vacationing travelers, or in cases delivered by mail. Gradually, the collection began to include not just paperback novels but classics as well.

Wander through the shelves today, and you'll find lots of romance and mystery writing, indeed, but also Marcel Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past"; an illustrated volume of Rudyard Kipling stories; an 18-volume set of Victor Hugo; and, yes, "War and Peace."

A collection titled "Modern Swedish Short Stories" published in 1934 is stamped "discarded" by its former home, the Portland Library Association.

Cookbooks are popular, both to read and to donate; the library includes lots of them in its ongoing sales of extra books to help raise money for the operating budget. And the library boasts a tidy collection of books about Oregon.

The O'Brien Library's annual budget takes in no tax money and totals about $2,000 a year, which covers electricity and insurance. That's roughly one-tenth of one percent of the cost of building the newly opened Eugene Library.

Sather, the new president, does have expansion plans, humble though they may be.

"Our dreams are a children's room and a bathroom," she said. "We run the library with no running water, which isn't always easy. One day a children's group came in. One got a bloody nose. Another had to go outside and vomit. It's hard to have children in with no bathroom."

Still living in her grandmother's old house is Sue O'Brien, who acts as a caretaker for the property.

"She always had a book in her hand," the granddaughter recalled. "I never saw her without a book in her hand, unless she was cooking. This was all she ever talked about, was the library. She had Grandpa working at it all the time."

"Grandpa" was Orel O'Brien, a Blue River native who married the young schoolteacher in 1928, three years after she arrived in the community. That ended her teaching career, though she continued to work as a clerk in the McKenzie School District. She started the library that year because the nearest library was 40 miles away.

The volunteers who keep the library running can't imagine life without it.

"When Mrs. O'Brien died, I thought, `I can't do this anymore,' ' Juza said. `So I didn't for a couple weeks. Then I realized - I couldn't not do it."

The O'Brien Memorial Library is on the right just after you take the second, or easternmost, exit from the McKenzie Highway into Blue River. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

Features reporter Bob Keefer can be reached by phone at 338-2325 and by e-mail at bkeefer@guardnet.com.

LIBRARY RULES

Here are the complete instructions for checking out a book from the O'Brien Memorial Library in Blue River. They are tacked on the wall next to the front door.

To check out a book:

1. Put your name on the top of the card and the date.

2. Then title of book or books you choose.

3. Leave card on this stand.

4. Check out all the books you choose.

CAPTION(S):

Left: Volunteer Sybil Fillman sweeps the library. Above: The old-fashioned card-indexing system has been maintained by hand over many years. "It was more important for people to read than to have rules. If they kept the books, they must have wanted them a lot. Isn't that a great attitude?" - ELLEN SATHER, president of the library's volunteer board of directors After putting up the American flag, library volunteer Susan Savidge's first duty of the day is sorting through a stack of returned books. BRIAN DAVIES / The Register-Guard LIBRARY RULES Here are the complete instructions for checking out a book from the O'Brien Memorial Library in Blue River. They are tacked on the wall next to the front door. To check out a book: 1. Put your name on the top of the card and the date. 2. Then title of book or books you choose. 3. Leave card on this stand. 4. Check out all the books you choose.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:If you borrow a book in Blue River, you'll never have to worry about a due date, a fine or a library card; Arts & Literature
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Jan 12, 2003
Words:1557
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