Mary's Farm: The Most Important Building in Town
My own town library is a little red-brick gem that was built as a Congregational vestry. A church was eventually constructed across the road, and the earlier building first became a school and then was abandoned, eventually falling into ruin, losing its roof, floor, and windows. It sits pondside, 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 structure 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 reserved strictly for learning. That was what lay 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 an education. Bookstores were scarce, and the purchase of a book was a major expenditure. Private libraries were the domain of the wealthy.
Robert E. 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 tavern, and Pike claimed to have read every book in that library in his very young years, while loggers and 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 tavern/library combo.
Pike never forgot that the library had 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 wanted to give these communities.
Many libraries have a “Friends” group that organizes book fairs and other fundraising events, from book sales to talks by local celebrities to story circles, wherein a town’s older residents tell about days gone by. Often, the Friends provide cookies and punch to make the event more festive. If nothing else, such evenings liven up a town summer and winter, giving it a stronger sense of community and making 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 rural libraries include investment in a satellite dish and WiFi, which afford patrons high-speed Web access and wireless computing. These are popular additions in villages where cable is nonexistent and DSL connectivity may be nil. As a result, people can sit in the library parking lot and log on to the Internet, which they can’t 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 indispensable. The idea that books are or will become obsolete is a bit premature. What they’ve always given us will remain, even though the delivery system may change.
As far as I can tell, the library can still take us not only back to the 19th century but ahead into the 21st and beyond.
Edie Clark’s new book is States of Grace: Encounters with Real Yankees, a collection of her profiles of unique personalities, available at edieclark.com and selected bookstores.