I have a longtime love of libraries, reaching back to when my mother would leave me off at our town library while she did errands elsewhere. I was there in that library by myself, which in itself gave me a sense of freedom, but, I also learned, the books that rested on those mahogany shelves could also take me just about anywhere.
And so I’m happy when I’m invited to libraries to read from my work. These ventures take me to a variety of places, from grand city libraries, all echoing marble and mosaic-tile floors, to little libraries in towns I’ve sometimes never heard of. One winter, for instance, I traveled to Post Mills, Vermont (an outpost of the larger town of Thetford, population 2,617). From the outside, the library was small, wooden, with white clapboards, black trim, and slender pillars holding up the gable front. A painted sign swung from hooks on a post near the road: Peabody Library. I parked, tight beside snowbanks, and crept up the icy path to the shelter of the porch, lit by a single bulb. I opened one of the double doors and stepped directly into the 19th century.
The room was long and wide, with a high ceiling and a stairway on either side, leading to a balcony lined with old books, spines dark brown and solemn, with new best-sellers near the front desk. In front of me was a very long library table, not unlike a banquet table, and around it sat a good number of people, mostly women–some young, some older, some ancient–all regarding me with curiosity and warmth. They welcomed me and indicated that they’d saved me the seat at the head of the table. I made my way past the stacks to the throne-like chair. I looked around me at the ornate woodwork, railings, and figural enhancements, all freshly painted and polished. I felt totally embraced by this little temple and all it held inside.
As I began to read, the lights were somewhat dim, giving the feeling of a séance or the meeting of a secret society. Many of the women were busily knitting or doing needlework, so their heads were bent over their work as if in prayer. Occasionally, they’d look up to smile or laugh, encouraging me with their eyes. At the end, they asked questions, and we sat and talked as if we’d all just shared a good meal together.
The evening came to a slow end, as everyone there was suitably proud of the library and gave me a brief rundown of its history. All around me, there was no shortage of love for or pride in this unique place. I crept home along icy roads to New Hampshire, suddenly curious why libraries exist at all in this new world of the Internet and books downloaded to Kindles. In the current economic and technological climate, I wondered what keeps a library like that alive.
In the case of the Peabody Library, the answer is (somewhat) simple. Above the door, I’d seen a huge, gilt-framed portrait of a man in a three-piece suit, hand inside his vest in Napoleonic stance. I’d learned that he was George Peabody, the man who’d endowed this building and its upkeep even to the present day, even though he’d spent only one boyhood winter with his maternal grandfather and a beloved uncle and aunt in Post Mills. He’d never returned, but he’d felt strongly enough about that place to give the townspeople that long-lasting gift. Similarly (though on a larger scale), many other libraries in New England and elsewhere are funded by Andrew Carnegie’s devotion to the idea of public libraries. But most libraries exist on taxpayers’ money, which varies widely with each town.
Libraries in New England lead stubborn existences. I know of one library that’s set up in what would otherwise be a home’s downstairs living room. When you go in, you ring the bell and the woman of the house will come down and take care of you. Once when I went there, her hair was in curlers.
I recently went over to the little library in a neighboring town and asked for a certain book. The librarian didn’t have it handy, so she asked me to wait while she drove home to get it. On her way out, she locked the door and flipped the sign from Open to Closed. Another one-room affair, this library had invested in computers, which sat blinking, and new titles, which lined the oaken bay window. A wide selection of magazines were fanned out beside them.
I sat in the rocking chair by the window and read while I waited for the librarian to return. I didn’t mind being locked in; it was warm in there. I thought it would be a lovely place to spend an afternoon.
My own town library is a little red-brick gem that was built as a Congregational vestry. A church was eventually constructed across the road, and the earlier building first became a school and then was abandoned, eventually falling into ruin, losing its roof, floor, and windows. It sits pondside, so the basement filled with water and the children of the town used it as a swimming pool during the summer and a skating rink in winter. But the structure itself, being brick, survived those times and eventually became the sweet little one-room library it is today.
The library, as an institution, was once a place reserved strictly for learning. That was what lay behind Andrew Carnegie’s passion: to create a place where anyone, no matter how poor, could pursue learning, at a time when just reading books was considered an education. Bookstores were scarce, and the purchase of a book was a major expenditure. Private libraries were the domain of the wealthy.
Robert E. Pike, author of Tall Trees, Tough Men and Spiked Boots, grew up in Upper Waterford, Vermont, observing the river drives and the drivers, which gave rise to the books for which he was noted in his later years. But first he had to get beyond where he was raised. The library in Upper Waterford was part of the local tavern, and Pike claimed to have read every book in that library in his very young years, while loggers and river drivers quenched their thirst at the bar. Bolstered by that unusual beginning, Pike went on to Dartmouth and then to Harvard for his Ph.D., but his early education took place in that rough tavern/library combo.
Pike never forgot that the library had provided him with his education, something that all libraries were intended to do, in the towns fortunate enough to have one in those early days. That was the gift that men like George Peabody and Andrew Carnegie wanted to give these communities.
Many libraries have a “Friends” group that organizes book fairs and other fundraising events, from book sales to talks by local celebrities to story circles, wherein a town’s older residents tell about days gone by. Often, the Friends provide cookies and punch to make the event more festive. If nothing else, such evenings liven up a town summer and winter, giving it a stronger sense of community and making it seem like a great place to live.
But savvy librarians have seen the future and brought it to their patrons. Recent innovations at many rural libraries include investment in a satellite dish and WiFi, which afford patrons high-speed Web access and wireless computing. These are popular additions in villages where cable is nonexistent and DSL connectivity may be nil. As a result, people can sit in the library parking lot and log on to the Internet, which they can’t do at home. Many librarians have reported to me, with amusement, that their parking lots are often filled after hours as folks come to make use of this free and mysterious service.
So the small-town library, once a place of sometimes-dusty books, has found a way to not only survive in this new world but to be indispensable. The idea that books are or will become obsolete is a bit premature. What they’ve always given us will remain, even though the delivery system may change.
As far as I can tell, the library can still take us not only back to the 19th century but ahead into the 21st and beyond.
Edie Clark’s new book is States of Grace: Encounters with Real Yankees, a collection of her profiles of unique personalities, available at edieclark.com and selected bookstores.