Thursday, February 2, 2023

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Joe's Neighborhood

A recipe for creating nostalgia


“Ah, the good old days.”

Did I really just say that?

Knocking on the door of nostalgia seems a bit of a trick bag. One person’s treasured memory is usually another person’s therapy-inducing nightmare. Take high school, for example. J.J. Watt, star defensive end for the Arizona Cardinals, says: “What I remember most about high school are the memories I created with my friends.” Really? What I remember most about high school was a guy named Bill. He was a tackle on the football team, poor student, shaved daily, and was very angry. 

See, nostalgia can be complicated. But I’m still pretty darn nostalgic for the old law library at the Iowa State Capitol.

So I go for a visit. 

CNA - Stop HIV Iowa (February)

I open the massive doors, walk into a large room, stop, slowly look around, and… it could be any library anywhere, from the one-room library in rural Mingo all the way to the jaw-dropping Library of Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. They are ghosts summoned by smell alone, and they carry a reminder that libraries are a sacred space and I’d better pull myself together. So I do. My droopy shoulders straighten, my breathing becomes quiet, and my non-believing soul almost genuflects in reverence. No doubt, the smell of a library short-circuits our ornery selves and powers up our better angels. 

In an article called “Why Do Books Smell So Good” at, they say:

“Old books have a sweet smell with notes of vanilla flowers and almonds, which is caused by the breakdown of chemical compounds in the paper, while new books smell like they do because of the various chemicals used when they are manufactured.”

Vanilla flowers and almonds? Who knew this about dusty old law books?

So here I am at the Iowa State Law Library, an old man, appreciating the smell and the quiet. How the heck did I get from the past to the present?

The law was an acquired taste for me. Quitting after the first year of law school to sell footlong hotdogs for a traveling carnival sort of says it all. The law and I were not an obvious match. But return I did, graduated, passed the bar, tricked a woman into marrying me, and started a career as a lawyer.

My job sent me to this library to research legal issues that any sane person would have found boring. Not me. I would commandeer a desk and work my way through book after book, mining for hidden treasure. Sometimes it would be days, just to find one small nugget of gold: one small answer to one small legal question. I loved it, and I loved the library.

Times changed. The computer allowed me to sit in my office and do in a couple of hours what used to take me a couple of days. That had its own thrill. But what of the library? 

Today in the library, a photographer is taking pictures of a young woman all decked out in her quinceañera dress — a beautiful ball gown with floor-length tulle and taffeta and bright colors. She looks at me with her eyebrow-raised, 15-year-old’s smile — “Can you believe this?” Well, actually, I can. 

The young woman and her entourage leave, and I look around the room. Five stories high, books crammed in every corner, spiral staircases, polished and shining tile floor, and a central, stained-glass ceiling skylight. My oh my.

But today, this beautiful library is only visited by a few people including one old man and a young quinceañera girl with her entourage. 

So why should we keep these old law libraries? Is it a place to show young lawyers how old lawyers once walked to school barefoot across the cornfields after feeding the chickens and milking the cows — the general foolishness of a generation with one foot in the grave? Maybe. 

But when you crack open one of these books, they are full of people’s lives, from the great to the small. And the stories they tell. My goodness. Divorces, adoptions, troubled teenagers, infidelity, land grabs, assaults, murders, petty thefts. Story after story of the courts trying to protect people’s rights — right to be free from illegal searches, right to freedom of speech, right to freedom of religion, rights recognizing the equality of women, and right to marry whomever you want. In other words, the library is a depository of what makes our nation us — a nation of laws. 

And if there was any confusion about this, William Pitt is quoted just before you enter the Iowa State Law Library: “Where law ends, tyranny begins.” Amen to that.  

So, today only, right in the heart of Des Moines, for absolutely no entrance fee and, yes, free parking, you can visit both a monument to reason and a great place to stage your quinceañera photo. Now that’s a recipe for creating nostalgia. ♦

Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, he writes about the frequently overlooked people, places and events in Des Moines on his blog:

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