We’ve written often in this space about libraries and how much we appreciate them — as writers they hold a special place for us.
Recently, I was reminded just how much libraries are part of a community as a whole when I joined hundreds of others on a rainy Saturday morning to check out the renovation of Augusta’s Lithgow Public Library.
Downtown Augusta as seen from the Memorial Bridge (2010).
First, a little bit about Augusta, the city I grew up in. Like most cities in Maine, it’s had its ups and downs and is challenged the way small cities in Maine tend to be — the industries that bolstered the state’s economy for a century or more have faltered over the past several decades. The state, never wealthy, has a small population, many in far-flung remote areas who struggle to make a living. Cities like Augusta — cash-strapped and with challenges of their own — also welcome those who can’t find social and mental and physical health services in their small rural towns, adding to the strain.
Augusta may be the state capital, but with just under 19,000 residents, it’s the third smallest population-wise in the country after Montpelier, Vermont, (about 7,500 residents) and Pierre, South Dakota (about 13,000). Its aging housing stock includes a lot of beautiful, historic homes, but also a lot that are ramshackle, vacant — or should be. Its downtown, three or four blocks of ornate Victorian buildings on the bank of the Kennebec River, is beautiful but underused as complexes of big box stores at each end of the city and right off Interstate 95 draw shoppers who have no reason to navigate the city’s narrow roads and nutty rotaries to check it out.
Yet, somehow, the city keeps plugging away.
I have a lot of affection for Augusta. As a child, the State House was my playground, and on hot summer days I’d find a cool corner in it’s polished halls to read a book, or hang out on the balcony that looks across the river at the former Augusta Mental Health Institute (the state mental hospital). Legend has it, that porch was deliberately intended to have that view, so legislators would remember, as they sat out there and smoked their cigars (or these days, check their email on their phones) that even the most challenged of the state’s residents are their responsibility. Today, as then, I’m sure more people find delight in the humor they can get out of the view than some insight from its poignancy. But I digress.
The balcony at Augusta’s State House looks across the river to the grounds of the former Augusta Mental Health Institute — the state hospital.
I learned to drive in the massive State House parking lot and zipping around the crash-inspiring traffic rotaries and sat behind a cash register in Mr. Paperback at Shaw’s Plaza on summer Sunday afternoons looking out a barren city as everyone escaped to the lakes or the coast. I walked — almost daily, this was the 1970s and kids were still allowed, or rather expected, to walk — the mile from my Green Street home to Cony High School, crossing the Memorial Bridge (sans anti-suicide fencing) over my favorite river in the world. The view of the State House from the bridge, the downtown with the granite bulwark of the old post office, the green (or gold, or orange, or bare) hills beyond always thrilled me.
I delivered papers on two different routes from age 13 to 15,for the Kennebec Journal, where my dad was managing editor, and where I now work as city editor of its sister publication, the Morning Sentinel in Waterville. I can still feel the grit sandy streets below my sneakers (or boots), smell the early morning paper-mill tang,and taste the chocolate chip cookies and orange soda I’d buy at the bakery at the south end of Water Street when I was done. Governor Jim Longley used to jog (alone) and I’d often see him crossing the Memorial traffic circle, where he’d give me a friendly wave and hello. I’d watch the early Greyhound bus go by with “New York” on its destination sign and dream of growing up and living somewhere else.
Me, my dad and my brother Jimmy show our paper-folding techniques in a Kennebec Journal promotion in October 1975. Dad was managing editor and I was on my second paper route at the company I know work for.
And I loved Lithgow Library. My mom started taking my siblings and me to libraries before we could walk, talk or read. Everywhere we lived, libraries were always an unquestioned part of our routine. I loved having a library card, and loved the excitement of browsing through the shelves, finding new books to read. Taking them home and deciding which one to read first. Back then, Lithgow had mysteries in their own section. After I finished all Dorothy L. Sayers’ books and was told there were no more, I started at the top left corner of the shelf, which was against the left wall when you first walked into the stacks room, and went across, reading every single mystery novel the library had during my teen years.
Augusta’s Lithgow Public Library, pre-renovation.
Last summer, I was thrilled to donate a copy of my first mystery novel, Cold Hard News, to the library that was the foundation of my mystery writing career.
So it was with a lot of excitement on Saturday, August 13, when I visited the library to check out its renovation. It’d been housed in temporary quarters across the river in the Ballard Center (the former Augusta General Hospital, another place I had spend some time in my youth), for more than a year, but now was back home.
The renovation had cost $11.5 million and taken years to get underway, with some setbacks. I couldn’t wait to see what they had done to my old friend.
But man, I was stunned at what I found.
This was no ordinary renovation. The 1896 building was restored — lovingly. The new section is a beautiful, living work of art that triples the library in size. From the restored original section, to the new stacks, immense children’s area, teen center, use of old features (including stained glass windows found packed away in the attic), it goes beyond renovation.
Equally impressive were the swarms of people who visited that morning. I got there at 11:30, long after the 10 a.m. ceremony, but there were dozens, more than dozens, wandering the new library. Local folks, tourists. Lots of families, carrying kids or leading them by the hand. Older folks sinking into the comfortable chairs, leafing through books, admiring the restored fireplaces and expansive new areas. In the two hours it was open that morning, library officials estimated more than 300 people stopped by the check it out.
There is a lot of grousing these days about taxes, money, government. There seems to be little support for the arts or the other necessities that make our communities glow and thrive, but are considered expendable or unimportant.
It took my breath away that my tough little hometown could get behind such a glorious project. And that hundreds would come to see it. All for a library.
I’ll let the pictures tell the story, but you should really go see it yourself. (To read more about it and see some photos that are much better than mine, check out the Kennebec Journal’s coverage of the opening by Jessica Lowell, with some beautiful photos by Joe Phelan, by clicking this link.)
The “new” Lithgow Public Library.
The new entrance.
The ornate reading room is preserved and spruced up. Beautiful.
The old stacks area — where I used to spend hours among the narrow shelves — is now an open media and reading room, with the fireplace that was once hidden by shelves, now a centerpiece.
Closeup of the restored fireplace in the former stacks.
The stacks in the addition.
These stained glass windows were found packed away in an attack. Now they’re back in use.
My friend Cara Courchesne and her daughter Elena, already an avid reader, check out the new front desk area. Elena gave the renovation two tiny thumbs up.
Part of the new children’s area. That’s a project room for kids in the background.
The front desk area in the old section is now a comfortable reading nook. The one thing that hasn’t changed is old Mr. Lithgow keeping an eye on things from above.
Maureen Milliken is the author of the Bernie O’Dea mystery series. The second in the series No News is Bad News came out this summer. Ask your librarian for it! Follow her on Twitter @mmilliken47, on Facebook at Maureen Milliken mysteries, and get updates and more information at maureenmilliken.com.
EVENT ALERT: Maureen will join fellow Maine Crime Writers Lea Wait and Jen Blood Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Designing Women Craft Show and Authors, Longfellow’s Nursery, 81 Puddledock Road, Manchester, Maine. It’s a one-day event that raises money for the area Sexual Assault and Crisis Center.