Do you know what I call a person who thinks libraries have outlived their usefulness in the Internet era? Answer: Ignorant — a status, of course, that could be immeasurably improved if this person would just go to a library.
Lithgow Public Library in Augusta has survived budget crises, space crunches and a dreadful 1970s addition that would have made Frank Lloyd Wright weep. It has been an unquestionable asset to the community through it all; in fact, we need more Lithgow, more than ever.
I’m a librarian in the Augusta school system, and I served on the board of trustees at Lithgow for 10 years. I’ve been a card-holding patron since before I moved to Augusta. Yes, I needed a city library, not the quaint, but utterly insufficient, facility in the nearby town where my husband, Paul, and I lived after migrating from Massachusetts to Lewiston to the Augusta area. Actually, despite my dislike of Lewiston, it did have a good library, and residents also had privileges at the sister-city library in Auburn. Sometimes I dream about the Auburn library, which I reach (in my dream) by a secret staircase in the Lewiston library.
Hmm. Obviously, I have a deep and sentimental attachment to libraries. I began going to the Hood Public Library in Somerset, Mass., when I was 6. My father took my sister and me every week to pick out books. Dad was an avid reader and told me that when he went to California as a young man (he had asthma and needed a climate change), practically the first thing he did was get a card at the San Bernardino library.
The Hood library was small and cozy; I wanted to live there. I started with the Flicka, Ricka and Dicka books, a series about blonde Swedish triplets. What I, the black-haired grandchild of Portuguese, Brazilian and QuÃ©bÃ©cois immigrants, found to relate to there is beyond me. Yet when I recently found a reprint of one of the books, I had to have it. I was equally entranced with the adventures of the male Swedish triplets, Snipp, Snapp and Snurr.
I moved on to Bobbs-Merrill’s “Childhood of Famous Americans” series, reading every one the library owned. Virginia Dare, Pocahontas and Abigail Adams were naturals. But what did I see in George Pullman? I discovered my favorite childhood book there, “Harriet the Spy,” by Louise Fitzhugh.
When I was in college, I achieved my goal of working in the library during the summer. It had moved, by then, to a new building in the middle of town, but even I had to admit the new place was better. It helped that the Flicka, Ricka and Dicka books were still on the shelves.
This was in 1976, in a town of 18,000 people.The “new” library has gone through a renovation and expansion since then. Meanwhile, Lithgow has limped on with a barely functional box attached to its elegant derriere. Surely the capital city of Maine deserves better.
As I left the Lithgow board in 2004, the trustees were facing the prospect of lining up donors for a reconstruction project. We had discussed the issue endlessly, toured other libraries and had architects draw up plans. It is hard for me to believe that a decade has passed and Lithgow is still in the dire straits it was then.
A description of the problem can fit into a teaspoon. Libraries are central to their communities. This is more, not less, true in the age of information, the age of the Internet, the era of the digital native. Librarians help people navigate computers, e-readers and MP3 devices. We help patrons find the books they’ve heard about through Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Goodreads. The ones, that is, they can’t afford to buy on Amazon. Librarians have adapted to changing times with online catalogs and access to download services and online databases. We’ve formed consortia that enable patrons to borrow books from a wide variety of libraries, expanding the borrowing options exponentially.
Meanwhile, the traditional attractions of libraries have hardly changed. Tots come for puppet shows and story time and creative movement sessions. Youngsters research reports and read through their favorite series. Teens gather to do homework, Snapchat each other and seek out the latest graphic novels. Adults borrow audiobooks for their commutes, while seniors use their retirement time to read and read, and then meet in book groups to discuss their thoughts.
The Indian librarian S.R. Ranganthan proposed five laws of library science. The final one is “the library is a growing organism.” We can’t invite teens to the library without giving them a space of their own. Puppets need theaters. Seniors want to sit and chat with their friends, maybe have a cup of coffee.
Residents of Augusta, the time has come to give your children, your young adults, your parents, yourself, a place to grow, and ponder, and explore and maybe find peace of mind. All that in a library? I promise this to you, if you vote yes on the referendum in June.
Liz Soares welcomes email at [email protected]