I started out in the basement, two afternoons every week, all summer long. It was hot that year, and I rode my bike downtown, but it was a good chance to get out of the house. And I got all of my volunteer hours out of the way before my freshman year of high school even started in the fall. It was dusty down in the basement, but cool and quiet, and all I had to do was rip barcodes off of old magazines, stamp them “WITHDRAWN,” and wheel my booktruck down through the stacks to get a new batch.
The Morse Institute Library in Natick (http://morseinstitute.org/) was being renovated that fall, and the librarians were asking that the whole community pitch in. I also helped the way that most people did - by carrying an armload or pulling a wagonload of books three blocks down the street to the office building that would be a temporary home to some of the library’s collection. But before that bibliographic exodus, I was already feeling at home. The old library had been an odd assortment of two and a half buildings awkwardly conglomerated around the original 1874 structure. But by the end of the summer I felt like I knew how to navigate the maze of Dewey Decimal numbers and Large Print books and children’s books on audiocassette.
After helping to move the books into the cramped little office building down the street, I felt like I belonged there with them, and volunteered and worked there as a page, putting away books. I was a shy kid, and I jumped when the phone rang and practically ducked down behind the counter if I happened to be there when a patron asked the librarians a question. It was a shock when I’d been there a few months and people asked me where to find an author, or books on gardening, or the Hardy Boys, and I could answer them easily. It wasn’t just that I knew where things were now, but that I liked knowing and looked forward to sharing that knowledge.
I grew up along with the new building which opened two years later, with its big open spaces and welcoming atmosphere. I helped behind the circulation desk or in the children’s department sometimes, as well as paging, and feeling more than ever like it was my library. I knew our regulars and rode out with the bookmobile, and I knew I’d be back even after I went off to college.
The Connecticut College campus is right across the street from the US Coast Guard Academy in New London, CT, and the libraries of both institutions are similar. There were flat slabs of brick and concrete with narrow slit windows, buzzing fluorescent lights, and the depths of the Library of Congress-labeled stacks where no one ever seemed to go. They all served as reminders that these buildings meant serious, academic business. I never worked much with my fellow students or with the cadets and it was a relief to return to the Morse Institute during summer and winter breaks. The silence of the basement in Natick had been great when I was fourteen, but I didn’t welcome the solitude as much anymore.
After graduation, the Morse Institute sadly didn’t have a full-time position available, but the Framingham Public Library did (http://www.framinghamlibrary.org/). With its cozy children’s room in the basement and its atrium above the bustling circulation desk opening into the reference section, Framingham was a welcoming new opportunity - but also a challenging one! Framingham has generally been the fifth busiest public library in the state behind Boston, Cambridge, Newton, and Brookline. Every day seemed to fly by and, before I knew it, I was off again, this time much further away, to the University of Minnesota, where I pursued a PhD in medieval history and spent my library time studying and writing rather than helping patrons.
On the other side of the desk, I still loved to go to all the different libraries around the Twin Cities, finding books, audiobooks, movies, and music to enjoy in my (limited) spare time! Two of my favorites were the new central Minneapolis library, a gleaming glass and steel structure in the heart of the city, and the Walker library near my apartment, with only the lobby on the ground floor and the rest of the building buried below ground with skylights providing illumination from above. Later, I spent day after day writing at the Northfield Public Library, a beautiful Georgian revival building constructed with a Carnegie grant in the early 20th century.
After moving back to Massachusetts, I returned to my roots at the circulation desk of the Upton Town Library (http://www.uptonlibrary.org/) while teaching history as an adjunct at Framingham State University. Upton is an amazing, close-knit community and the library, in the ground floor of a nineteenth century historical building, soon felt as comfortably like home as the Morse Institute had. With only six staff members, all of us did a little of everything. I helped answer reference questions, put covers on books, and found picture books for kids,
Almost every one of these libraries has recently undergone or is about to undergo major changes. The Morse Institute Library has added a new archival space. Framingham was forced to undergo a major refit after being damaged by fire, and has also rebuilt their McAuliffe branch. The Minneapolis Central library is still brand new, the Walker library has been completely replaced (above ground!), and Northfield just completed a $1 million renovation to expand shelving and programming space and to improve accessibility. Even Upton is working on a plan to build a new town library to accommodate the growing needs of the community in the 21st century.
Throughout my library career, I’ve seen newspapers saying that new technology will replace libraries, that no one needs books now that we have the Internet, or that our culture doesn’t value reading anymore. Years of experience tell me that none of this is true. People need libraries more than ever - to use a public computer, to solve a home improvement challenge, to pick out movies for their family, to learn from a distinguished speaker, or even to pick out that perfect novel or work of nonfiction.
Above all, these libraries provide spaces for all of us to grow up and to learn about ourselves, and the world around us. They have brought together a town or a city or school and created the opportunities for patrons and staff to have conversations and experiences that change all their lives. I’m thrilled to be joining the Morrill Memorial Library here in Norwood and seeing what the future brings to all of us.