Before smartphones, before computers, before iPads, the Internet and Google, there was the library. There was the card catalog and the Dewey Decimal System. There were encyclopedias, dictionaries, and thesauruses that had mass and density, and you had to use your fingers to flip through actual paper pages, not pages that are swiped aside and scrolled down with the touch of one finger.
Once upon a time, there was a huge wooden desk with a mature matronly woman seated behind it, and she would shush the teenagers at the tables who were talking instead of researching books for a science report or reading for their book reports, which would be handwritten with pencils on lined paper instead of on a computer and graded with a red pen instead of in a virtual file.
The librarian was respected, revered – feared! And when I would return all my books on time in good condition, placing them on the book return end of that huge wooden desk, I’d feel proud and validated at the smile she’d give me.
Back then, there wasn’t much else in that library except for the various rooms of books on shelves sectioned by category, the huge wooden desk, the stern librarian, scattered tables and chairs, the illustrious Dewey Decimal System-sorted card catalog, and perhaps a globe, a bust or two of famous authors, and a few potted plants that lived there.
I can still hear the vintage ka-chunk of that Gaylord’s Charging Machine as the librarian would slide the card into the slot to stamp the due date before sliding the card back into the pocket of the last page at the back of the book.
Ah, the magic of the library. I still get high off the sights, smells, and sounds of my memory that is in a way its own sensory library of sorts. Some rooms in my house look somewhat like a vintage library and, like a true geek, I even have candles throughout with scents titled “Old Books,” “Oxford Library,” and “Book Cellar,” which not only embodies that rounded scent of old books, wooden shelves, and a slight perfumey vanilla, but also contains just a hint of musty air to make it vintage legit.
Just about the only thing I never liked about the library is that I had to return the books after I read them.
Around two-thirds of the population has a library card, and there are still more public libraries in the United States than Starbucks, according to the American Library Association – that’s 17,566 libraries including branches. Furthermore, 100 percent of libraries provide Wi-Fi access and maintain no-fee access to computers.
The library is no longer limited to what it used to be, which is a message that modern-day librarians want everyone to know. Libraries are filled with more than books, desks, busts, and potted plants.
If you happened to be in the Mattapoisett Free Public Library, like many parents and caregivers with their kids were this past Saturday, you would have noticed that those open spaces are now imaginative play spaces with a train table, puppet stage, Legos, and tiny desks with computers featuring educational games. Or if you were at the Joseph H. Plumb Memorial Library in Rochester, you would have seen that the space once taken up by the card catalog is now occupied with computers.
“Take Your Child to the Library Day” is like a free, fun jackpot for families and kids, with library staff coordinating a tight lineup of imaginative, engaging events that offer the library patron (and prospective patron) a condensed taste of the contemporary offerings of a library.
In Tri-Town, hardly anyone attracts a crowd to an event like the Toe Jam Puppet Band, so when Mr. Vinny appears at Plumb Library for a solo shadow puppet performance, they come in droves.
“This year we brought in Mr. Vinny. He’s known for bringing in a good audience,” said Plumb Library Assistant Lisa Fuller.
Also invited that day was the library’s new reading mascot – Amos the reading greyhound – and the day featured other events like a mystery missing book hunt and crafts. Kids received a raffle ticket for each event they stayed for, which they could enter to win any of four prizes.
“This year, the challenge was to try to keep people at the library longer and stay for the day,” said Fuller. The more events the kids stayed for, the more chances they’d get to win prizes, and the more opportunities the library staff got to make available resources at the library known to the public – in other words, it was the library’s day to shine.
Fuller said she wants the public to feel like the library is their community hub and a safe, happy place to hang out in.
“It’s not just a place where you can check out books,” Fuller said, adding that the library also offers interesting items to check out like a ukulele, snowshoes, and a telescope, among other things.
Fuller was sporting the library’s new T-shirt that features the slogan “A Little Library with a Big Impact” and can be purchased by anyone wishing to promote the library’s message while helping to fund its free educational events coordinated by the Friends of the Plumb Library, of which additional members are needed, said Fuller.
“Anything where funds are expended are provided by the Friends,” said Fuller. “For us to have programs, that’s who funds it for us.”
Over in Mattapoisett, kids were lining up for their turn to watch Chip Rascal fashion them their very own balloon art, which in most cases took the form of a colorful balloon sword, the most popular balloon art request.
The children’s library was the fun hub of the day, with all ages exploring the library’s offerings that are both fun and educational – and of course, free to all.
“We’re here today to promote the library and the idea of valuing the library,” said Children’s Librarian Jeanne McCullough. “But we also like to let people know what we’re doing here in their library. It’s nice to see so many people come out.”
The library has expanded many of its book collections, said McCullough, especially adding books that focus on nurturing the social-emotional wellbeing of children.
In addition to a collection of cake pans, a sewing machine, bike, and metal detectors, the library also allows patrons to use its 3D printer. Library staff are trained to assist with working the 3D printer, which can be used for a small cost of covering the materials.
The 21st century library indeed fulfills the changing needs of the population during a time of rapid technological evolution, while still continuing to offer us all the quiet respite we need from the e-world noise and a silent spot inside the sanctuary that will always be your public library.
By Jean Perry