National Library Week (April 14-20) is a great time to consider — What is the function of a modern town library? This isn’t a new question, but it’s certainly a timely one. Decades ago, a library could fit neatly into a town by providing books and quiet. But in our hyper-connected world, do we need libraries like we used to?
Yes. More than ever.
If a library simply offered books and DVDs, the answer would be different. But to focus only on a library’s paper and electronic resources misses the purpose of a modern library. As the world has become more wired, the town library has evolved into a destination that is at once a reading place, a meeting place, and a social space. Ironically, the very institution known for shushing conversation now provides a key point of human connection — a kind of literary connective tissue for a town.
For most of my professional life, I’ve written about and worked with computers, so my bias is often toward new, rather than older, media. And yet, I love libraries, from the soaring lines of book cathedrals like those in Newton, Needham, and Natick, to the graceful arches of cozier libraries like those in Medfield, Holliston, and Norwood.
I also worked parttime for much of last year as a library assistant at the Dover Town Library, a library that blends the best elements of the traditional and the contemporary: a superb selection of books and magazines in a welcoming space, a remarkable array of new media, and a varied calendar of social events. This is not just one former employee’s opinion; the Gates Foundation has designated the Dover Town Library as a “Best Small Library” in America.
As we celebrate National Library Week, here are some snapshots from the other side of the Front Desk, of what a modern library can contribute to the life of a town.
The library as guidepost for unknown terrain
• A third-grader walks hesitantly into the Children’s Department and asks about pyramids. He’s writing a report and his teacher has told the class they can’t go online for information. I show him the shelves for history, geography, mythology. Then I leave him to browse on his own. Later he returns to the desk all smiles, with a stack of books on pyramids, Egyptian history, mythology, and for good measure, “The Time Warp Trio” adventure, "Tut, Tut."
He’s just conquered a whole other style of research: it’s non-linear, non-clickable, and also lots of fun.
• A father asks about books for his 10-year-old daughter who’s lost interest in reading; every book seems too young or too old. Together, we browse titles, the slight heft of the books a pleasant reminder to pause and give each one a chance. He leaves with some possibilities. Two weeks later he stops back and thanks me, because his daughter has fallen in love with Lois Lowry’s Anastasia series.
The library staff as best neighbors, ever
• At the front desk, a co-worker recommends just the right mystery series for an adult daughter to bring to her housebound elderly father. Another colleague recommends a new audio book to a weary commuter, to make the long drive up and down 128 that much shorter. To a patron who’d enjoyed Christopher Hitchens’ memoir, “Hitch 22,” I mention that we now have his essay collection, “Arguably.”
At these times, the front desk resembles a back fence that neighbors chat across, exchanging news about books, new media, and what’s going on in town. Although you can easily get useful suggestions from the If-you-liked-that-you’ll-probably-like-this algorithm on Amazon or Goodreads, nothing beats a recommendation wrapped in a conversation with a fellow book lover.
The library as Genius Bar
• On any day, an adult patron approaches the front desk for a quick tutorial on how to download books from the Minuteman Library Network’s Overdrive system onto their eReaders (kids, of course, just know how to do this). Some patrons request help to send a fax, scan a crucial document, or solve the mystery of why a particular newspaper article won’t print. Others request books to be delivered from other libraries, and they’re invariably grateful that library staff can find exactly what they’re looking for, even when they can only provide an author’s first name or part of a title.
All these people have other places they can go, but here they are. Even if they don’t talk with anyone else (though most do), while they’re here, they’re part of a community.
. One morning each week, a well-dressed retired couple arrives to enjoy a leisurely cup of coffee and read The Boston Globe, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, before browsing and selecting audio books and bound books.
• Other mornings, moms and nannies arrive with toddlers for Storytime books and crafts; afterwards, many stay to sit and read big picture books together, comfortable on cushioned chairs or the carpeted floor
• Afternoons and early evening, kids do their homework, backpacks and binders strewn across the polished wooden tables.
All these people have other places they can go, but here they are. Even if they don’t talk with anyone else (though most do), while they’re here, they’re part of a community, enjoying small but essential encounters with others as part of their day.
The library as media mall
• At the Children’s Desk I’m part librarian and part cool sales associate, because here reside all kinds of tech gadgets for borrowing: iPads, iPods, Nintendo, Wii, Kindles, Nooks, even remote control cars. Down the hall, two kids play an XBOX hockey game on the big screen TV. They are here often, and seem to consider the library a great place in town to hang out. That also has books.
Libraries today hold all kinds of media, and they peacefully co-exist. A modern library is a multi-faceted treasure, which cannot be duplicated by an Internet connection, a bookstore, or a coffeeshop. Under one roof, it offers the tranquility in which discovery can thrive, and the casual social contact that can be lacking in our electronic, atomized lives.
Step through the doors of your town library and you may be reminded of what scholars, centuries ago at the Library of Alexandria, inscribed above the shelves: “The place of the cure of the soul.”
When she’s not at a library, Carol Iaciofano is a senior technical writer at a large Internet company. She also reviews books for The ARTery and several other media outlets.
This program aired on April 18, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.