Eva White sits inside her office in the Van Buren Public Library. She is backlit by sunlight from the wide window and it illuminates her snowy hair, her pearl-colored blouse. She smiles when she names the books her mother and grandmother read to her as a small child. Her favorites were “The Little Engine That Could” and “The Little Island,” which won the Caldecott Medal for illustration in 1947.
Listening to stories made an impact on this little girl growing up in Dover. At that time, the Pope County town had a population of 493, but books could take her anywhere she wanted to go. Her mother, a teacher, let it be known that Eva and her sister would go to college one day. “She never said ‘if,’ she always said ‘when,’” White said.
At the mention of her mother, White touches her throat, a gesture that seems to hold a world of feeling. In that small world – her sister, Eva, her mom and dad – so much love existed. But heartache, too. For years, the only connection she had with her father was from a great distance. He’d been diagnosed with tuberculosis and sent to the Arkansas Tuberculosis Sanitorium in Booneville. “I didn’t see him except from the fifth floor of the Nyberg Building for five years. We’d have to holler to talk to each other.”
The family must have worried he might never come home. Their fears were misplaced, though. As time passed, he did improve, but not before White’s mother contracted the same disease.
“My grandmother had a farm, but that wasn’t stable income. And my mom and dad were in the sanitorium at the same time for a while, so taking care of me and my sister fell to her. She was in her 70s.” White runs her finger along the edge of her desk. “My grandmother was not really able to do all she did, and we were on welfare to get by. But she did it. She took care of everything.”
When White was 18, her mother died of tuberculosis. By then, White was attending Arkansas Polytechnic College (now Arkansas Tech University) in Russellville. To help pay for her education, she worked in the school’s library, a fortuitous turn of events. “It was just so peaceful there, and I had a really good boss.”
White had found her calling. She dreamed of earning her master’s of library science, but there wasn’t enough money.
In the years that followed, she married, had three children – two boys and a girl – and worked as a school librarian. In the 1960s, she saw the world was changing. One day, computers would be all the rage. White enrolled in vocational/technical school and earned an electromechanical degree and worked with other students at a computer store.
Further study took her to the University of Arkansas for a master’s degree in educational resources. She still wasn’t satisfied. While working at North Arkansas College in Harrison, she finally got her chance to tackle that elusive master’s of library science. Texas Women’s University teamed up with the University of Central Arkansas to offer the program. White sailed through it.
Looking back on her long career, she sees how it all led to her work in Crawford County. In 1999, the county’s current library system was born, and Larry Lawson, then-director of the Fort Smith Public Library, asked White to apply. “Everything fell into place. That’s how I knew it was the right move,” White said.
The task was a big one. Take five libraries – Alma, Cedarville, Mountainburg, Mulberry and Van Buren – and tie them together using integrated systems and a master plan.
White has served 20 years doing just that, along with spearheading the construction or renovation of four of the five libraries.
“We couldn’t have done any of this without the generosity of the voters of Crawford County. The people of this county love their libraries. It has been one of the great highlights of my work to know that the voters believe in libraries the same way I do.”
In describing her belief, she said, “Of course, first you have to talk about the love of reading, about teaching children to be lifelong readers. If you can read, you can do anything. But libraries are also a haven. We’re the safe place for kids to come after school instead of being alone. We’re safe spots for those who are homeless. We become like family to elderly patrons who might not have anyone to talk to every day besides us.
“We’ve helped connect people with other resources in our area, like shelters and the Crawford County Adult Education. We’ve given food to patrons who seem to be hungry,” White said.
On March 17, all five libraries closed, a mandate issued to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the novel coronavirus with rising case numbers. White said closing was one of the hardest episodes of her career.
“It went against everything I’d worked for,” she said. “Not being able to provide services and programs. Not encouraging people to come in and help them with whatever they needed.”
Libraries reopened for no-contact service on May 18, and opened carefully to the public with safety guidelines in place on June 15. In the interim, all five libraries handed out free books to anyone who wanted them. Taking advantage of available tools, librarians also read stories on video so little patrons could still enjoy story times.
Today, the Van Buren Library, where the Crawford County Library System is headquartered, bustles, with library visitors in masks, observing the required distancing from others. Curbside check-out service is given for those who prefer to stay outside.
White’s phone rings. A patron needs some special attention, and she stops to make sure he’s taken care of. Outside her office door, the copier is shuttling out a scruff of reports, and farther away, her staff is busy returning books to their places on the shelves.
Come Jan. 1, someone else will be in White’s chair. In her time at the Crawford County Library System, she’s orchestrated the five libraries as deftly as any composer. On that day, though, she’ll set her sights on a new mission. More time with her family.
“It was time for retirement,” said the 76-year-old. “I’ll miss the people I work with and the friends I’ve made because of this job. I love them all.” The subject of reading surfaces again, a mainstay in a conversation with a woman who believes in books so much, it’s charted the course of her impressive and storied life.
Contributing writer Marla Cantrell is the head of the Alma Public Library, a vibrant part of the Crawford County Library System.