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The Most Important Building in Town

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 am happy when I am invited to libraries to read from my work. These ventures take me to a variety of libraries that range from the grand city libraries, all echoing marble and mosaic tiled floors, to the little places in towns I have sometimes never heard of. One winter, for instance, I traveled to Post Mills, Vermont (an outpost of the larger village of Thetford, pop. 2,617). From the outside, the library was small, wooden, with white clapboards, black trim, and ornate pillars holding up the gable front. A painted sign swung from hooks on a post near the road: The Peabody Library. I parked, tight beside snow banks 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, wide with high ceilings and stairways on either side that led to balconies lined with old books, spines dark brown and solemn with new bestsellers 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 had 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 me 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 looked up to smile or laugh, encouraging me with their eyes. At the end, they asked questions and we sat and talked as if we had all just shared a good meal together.

The evening at the Peabody Library 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 library. I crept home along the icy roads to New Hampshire, suddenly curious why libraries exist at all in this new world of the internet and books subscribed to on Kindle. In the current economic and technologic 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, there had been a huge, gilt-framed portrait of a man in suit and vest, hand inside his vest in Napoleonic stance. I learned that he was George Peabody, the man who had endowed this building and its upkeep even to the present day, even though he only ever spent one boyhood winter with an uncle in Post Mills. He never returned but he felt strongly enough about that place to give them that long-lasting gift. 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 taxpayer’s money, which varies widely with each town.

Libraries in New England lead stubborn existences. I know of a library that exists in what would otherwise be the downstairs living room of a house. When you go in, ring the bell and the wife 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, the library had invested in computers, which sat blinking, and new titles which lined the oaken bay window. A wide selection of magazines fanned out beside them. I sat in the rocking chair beside the window and read while I waited for her 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 brick Gothic gem that was built as a church for the millworkers to attend. A bigger church was built and the earlier one was abandoned and eventually fell into ruin, losing its roof, floor and windows. The building sits lakeside 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 building 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 strictly reserved for learning. That was what was 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 to be an education. Bookstores were scarce and the purchase of a book was a major expenditure. Private libraries were the domain of the wealthy.
Robert 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 saloon and Pike claimed to have read every book in that library in his very young years, while 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 saloon/library combo. He never forgot that the library 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 intended to give these communities.

Many libraries have a Friends group that organizes book sales and other fundraising events. These events range from the standard book sales to talks by local celebrities to story circles wherein the older residents tell stories about the days gone by. Often, the Friends provide cookies and punch to make the event more festive. If nothing else, the evenings liven up a town, summer and winter, give it a stronger sense of community and make 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 local libraries include the investment in a satellite dish which affords patrons the use of high-speed internet and wi-fi. These are popular additions in towns where cell phone signals are sometimes nil and access to high-speed is still widely sought. As a result, people can sit in the library parking lot and log onto the internet, which they cannot 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 indispensible. The idea that books are or will become obsolete is a bit premature. What they have always given us will remain, even though the delivery system might have changed. So far as I can tell, the library can still take us not only into the 19th century but to the 21st and beyond.