Words on Words: Libraries (and librarians)
We need them more than ever, is my feeling about both books and community resources. Economic stress, and the increasing influence of digital culture, thy antidote is found in the timeless world of a good public library. With the fate of Farmington's excellent library being a matter of current debate I checked in with its head librarian, my book colleague Melanie Taylor, to get her thoughts.
Kenny: If you discovered Aladdin's lamp hidden in the stacks what would your three wishes be?
Melanie: 1. Self repairing building. This, of course, would include a non-plugging toilet. Being a librarian in a small town means you will be handling every crisis that comes along. Ordering books, awesome! Answering reference questions, fantastic! Unplugging the public toilet, wet-dry vacuuming the children's area on a holiday weekend, not so much fun. If the magic lamp could replace the carpet and keep the heat running it would definitely be worth a good rub.
2. Bridging the digital divide. Forgive me for being a bit too techie for a moment. Rural Maine is less connected than other parts of the country. If you look at a map of a worldwide infrastructure for data use, how people access information with smartphones, computers or other devices, rural areas are far behind metropolitan areas. Farmington Public Library has participated in every technology grant that aims at fixing the problem, but it's not enough. Blazing fast changes is the nature of technology, it is hard to keep up. Our aging computers and limited hours means the digital divide will continue to grow.
3. Everyone welcome. This is by far the most helpful, friendly staff I have worked with in my 23 years as a professional librarian. Farmington Public Library exists to provide services to the community. We get a lot of feedback from the folks who do make it to the building. I would wish that we would have better ways to get out into the community to reach people who cannot otherwise make it to the library.
Kenny: I have heard that Library usage increases during times of economic stress. Is that true in your experience?
Melanie: Absolutely. The economics of library usage are pretty simple. When people don't have money to spend on books and computers, they come to the library. Our foot traffic is up significantly, 23% over the past five years. Ebook usage through Download Library is way up, now over 1,800 downloads yearly. We've seen an increase in laptop borrowing and printing, which means folks are probably not buying consumables or paying for wireless at home.
Kenny:What kind of initiatives do you have going to promote literacy for young readers?
Melanie: We offer weekly Baby Rhymes and Storytime and a massive Summer Reading Program. Word repetition builds vocabulary and verbal skills. Lap time reading allows parents to bond with their children. Mother Goose is sing-songy for a reason, the rhythm helps kids mimic what they hear. The weekly programs are also a really important way for new parents to get to know other people in the community. Children who do not read during the summer months can lose grade levels that are difficult to regain when they return to school in the fall. The message is pretty simple. It is really important to read to children. We offer over 10,000 books for kids.
Kenny:How have the priorities of the library changed over the last decade?
Melanie: The best libraries are fluid and always reflect the needs of the community. Maine is demographically the oldest state in the nation. Five years ago we started shifting collection purchases toward large print and audio book materials. We have very limited resources, so it is important to use them wisely. The biggest changes are in technology and how people are gathering and using information. Maine has developed a Download Library to provide on demand audio books and eBooks. We've also developed a shared reference collection called MARVEL! Resource sharing has been great for Maine libraries because it allows access to expensive information we could not get elsewhere. We can tell everyone how to get Consumer Reports from home for free!
Kenny: Is there a novel which you think best captures what running a library is really like?
Melanie: I don't think there is one book that could truly describe the experience of running a library. There are daily challenges, but loving your life work is tremendously rewarding. I became a librarian because I really struggled with reading as a child. Once I discovered the beauty in books, I realized I could share that passion and make a difference. So I will leave you with a favorite quote instead: "That's what I love about reading: one tiny thing will interest you in a book and that tiny thing will lead you on to another book, and another bit will lead you onto a third book. It's geometrically progressive--all with no end in sight, and for no reason other than sheer enjoyment." -- Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, pp. 11-12
Kenny: Thank Melanie!