John here with some stories about things that didn’t make it into my library school curriculum. Some were shared with me by other Maine librarians, the rest come my own experiences. Before I get started with those, I’d like to share a few bits of library trivia. We’ve come a long way from the days when libraries loaned books and little else. I was thinking about that while cataloging another batch of music CDs today. We now have close to 2700 in our collection at the Hartland Public Library and probably a quarter of them are unique in that we’re the only owner in the state. That’s mainly because I have a habit of hitting thrift shops on days off and scooping up any that are in decent shape. As a result we end up with a fair amount of esoteric music (as well as movies on DVD). Other Maine libraries lend things you’d never expect. In Topsham, for example, library patrons can check out fishing equipment. Libraries that are partners with the Cornerstones of Science Program lend telescopes and binoculars so patrons can view not only the heavens, but birds in their back yards. Many Maine libraries offer patrons museum and park passes that will get them in free or at a significant discount. All Maine libraries offer access to MARVEL, a terrific array of online databases including Ancestry.com and Value Line (my personal favorite). The Abbott Memorial Library in Dexter has created a database of local obituaries going back to 1944. A host of Maine libraries now have big screen ITV capability and offer innovative programs like the Lawyers in Libraries Series. Many others offer knitting or quilting groups and you can even learn to play the ukulele at the Newport Cultural Center and Library.
Curious about what’s offered and what’s scheduled at Maine libraries? The best place to begin is by bookmarking the directory page on the Maine State Library website at http://www.maine.gov/msl/libs/directories/public.shtml This will help you find virtually every Maine public library. Most entries list the library website as well as show a picture of the library, contact information and hours of operation. There are links to directories for school, academic and special libraries on the left side of the public library directory. I encourage you to check out the listings on the Special Libraries page. Maine has some gems listed there that few know about like the Bagaduce Music Library in Blue Hill, The Owls Head Transportation Library and the United Society of Shakers Library at Sabbathday Lake.
While not a library, per se, I have to put in a plug for the Maine Memory Network because it’s such an awesome resource. Writers wanting to get a sense for what things looked like or how life was at an earlier time in Maine would do well to check it regularly. I don’t know the exact number of photos and other items it currently contains, but it grows daily. You can check it out here http://www.mainememory.net/
Now for the fun and bizarre side of Maine libraries. I asked my fellow librarians to share some of the more interesting things they’ve encountered. First up is a story about separation anxiety carried over the top. Almost 20 years ago in a coastal library, a fellow came in as he frequently did and proceeded to share his grief over losing his purebred dog. It had died of old age and he was pretty demonstrative in his description of how the loss had impacted him. We heard more about his grief over the next three weeks. Now keep in mind the fellow lived on a sailboat. We found out in week three that the dog was still ensconced in his refrigerator because he couldn’t bring himself to let go completely. By that point, it was getting rather hard to maintain a sympathetic attitude, particularly for someone like me who has a huge streak of black humor. I looked at one of the other librarians and muttered, “Sure hope he removed the lasagna first.”
Here’s a feel-good story from Jane at the Rockport Public Library: One lovely summer day in Rockport a woman wearing a wedding dress rushed into the library. “Do you have internet access here?” she breathlessly asked.
“Yes, we do.” I answered. “would you like to use a computer?”
She explained that she was about to get married (I had deduced that) and the officiant had forgotten to bring the vows they’d sent her. The bride-to-be brought up her email, printed out the vows (I waived the printing charge), thanked us profusely, and hurried out to get married.
From my friend John McManus, director at the Millinocket Memorial Library comes this gem: I came to work one morning and found 2 books on my desk with the dust jackets and covers missing. There was a post-it note from a staff member explaining that they had tried to contact the person who had taken the books out. However, they were told that the person had left for the day and would not be back until the following afternoon.
I called this person the next day and this is what transpired. Keep in mind that this person spoke in a monotone with no feeling at all.
“Hello, is this…?”
“Well, I see that the dust jackets are missing from 2 books that you returned yesterday. What was the problem? Did you dog eat…?”
“No, I did. I removed them”
Hmm. How does one ask why? Before I could ask that question, she said, “They bothered me”. I was dumbfounded. How does one respond to that! She added, “I will bring them back tomorrow” And, yes, the next day. she dropped them off in our dropbox, along with another jacket from another library. I guess it doesn’t matter where the dust jackets come from. They must all “bother” her.
There was a happy ending though. She moved further south the next day!
Here’s a story that’s almost the complete opposite. When I was director at the Boothbay Harbor Memorial Library, we had what I have to describe as a nouveau rich lady move to town. I doubt the woman had ever cracked a book save under duress, but she wanted to make an impression on visitors to her posh new digs, so she came to the Friends Bookstore adjacent to the library and proceeded to buy massive quantities of books with shiny new dust jackets. She could have cared less what the titles were as long as they had shiny new covers. It wasn’t long (as she made repeated trips to buy more) before everyone associated with the bookstore started referring to her as ‘the shiny cover lady.’ Just to prove this wasn’t unusual, a couple of men bought a house on the other side of the harbor several years later and opened a bed and breakfast. They, too made a habit of coming in to buy shiny covers from the Friends bookstore to fill shelves in the living room.
Librarians serve as empathy dispensers almost daily as this vignette from Holly in Pittsfield demonstrates: “For me, some of the most amazing moments happen in the brief exchanges I have with patrons at the circulation desk. One day last week, a patron told me her mother was dying in Florida and couldn’t afford to see her (so we’re helping her with Skype so she can), another woman had her children taken away (so she needed help finding the form to fill out and send to the governor), and one other patron returned a book and just stood at the desk in a daze. When I asked her if she was ok, she said she just had to put her dog down. She teared up but told me that it was really OK and for the best, but she was going to miss him.
*sigh* That, sir, was a tough, tough day for folks in Pittsfield! If you want to use my name and library, feel free. Have a good day!
Holly Williams-Circulation & Catalog Librarian, Pittsfield Public LIbrary
And to prove that we’re often surprised by what people think we can provide (probably because we can usually figure out what they’re really asking and then figure out where to get the best answer), we have this from Becky Ames at the Simpson Library in Carmel. “Hi John,
I had a funny one a couple of weeks back. I had a person come in, never seen them before, and they wanted their medical records. Well, I could not figure out where they were coming from. This is a public library, not a medical library, and we have zero medical records. Turns out the doc that took care of the town folks for years had passed away some time ago, and this person wanted their medical records. My trusty side-kick, a local, helped figure it out and we sent the person one their way to the correct locale.
One never knows!
Here in Hartland, we have a few people who cannot bring themselves to enter the building. That’s because they remember when it was the local funeral home. That business closed around 1995 and the library board got a terrific deal on the building. A few years later, the Irving Community Foundation approached the trustees and offered to build an addition, so we’re in pretty good shape for a small town. Our very extensive mystery collection sits on shelves where the dearly departed used to lie during wakes and funerals. A nice touch, I think.
Two tales remain, one from Hartland, the other from Boothbay Harbor. I was helping a woman with her online coursework when I worked at the Boothbay Harbor Memorial Library. She was getting a doctorate from one of those institutions that the more prudent among us tend to avoid, but she was very pleasant and always thanked me for whatever I was able to borrow. She and her husband managed an inn on Southport Island and were very good at making guests feel special and pampered. Unfortunately, new owners took over and gave the couple a week to vacate. They were in a panic when she called me and asked if I would stop by to pick up some books they couldn’t take with them. We started with a couple boxes in the back of my truck, but the longer I was there, the greater her and her husband’s panic level became as they realized how much stuff had to go and how little space they had in their car. Every time I turned around, they asked me if I’d like something else. By the time I left, the bed of my truck was piled as high as was safe and the cab was full, too. I came home with everything from pancake mix to maple syrup, but the highlight of that experience was three sets of sterling silver, two of which are now in the possession of our daughters. If I learned anything from that day it was that a smart librarian never turns down an offer of stuff from a donor, even if the item(s) make no sense at the time.
That brings us to the man who was killed by wild turkey poop. Shortly after I took the job as Hartland librarian, an older lady came in and in the course of checking out books to her, we got talking about the newspaper column I was writing about the library as well as an occasional feature I was doing called “Getting To Know Your Neighbors” where I profiled someone locally who had an interesting life. She paused and said, “You should come up to the house sometime and I’ll tell you how my husband was killed by wild turkey poop.” I’d heard plenty of interesting lines in my years as a librarian, but that was at, or very near the top of the list. My curiosity grew and a couple weeks later, I stopped in at her house. We sat in her sun room and she proceeded to tell me a very unusual, but true story about her husband Clare Russell. He was a horse trader who traveled as far as Indiana every year, buying and selling work horses. In the course of his travels, he discovered and fell in love with a particular brand of toy horses. Clare bought a lot of them and before he knew it, he began building carts and other things for them to pull. He was essentially self-taught and as his wife noted, he wasn’t the most patient man in the world, but something about the challenge of working with his hands created a zen-like aura of calm.
Clare suffered some pretty serious health setbacks which left him with a very weak immune system. The following spring, he was grinding up some stumps in the front yard, but didn’t realize his grinding was also turning wild turkey droppings into powder. He inhaled enough so he got very ill from a strain of Cryptococcosis. The additional damage to his immune system did lead to his death. In addition to turning that conversation into an interesting article, I got to see the amazing models Clare built to go with his toy horses. I’ve added a few pictures so you can enjoy them as well.
I’m sure every librarian in the state could add a tale or two to the ones I’ve shared. Next time you visit your local library, ask a staff member what’s the most unusual experience or conversation they’ve had as part of the job. Don’t be surprised if they share something you can use in your next book or short story.
Thank you. This was a wonderful article for the day after the capture of the 2nd of the Marathon bombers. It was just another way to come back to reality. Dee
Great stories, John. And those are the kinds of questions, and answers, mystery writers find so fascinating.
I’m betting most patrons coming through the door have no idea about the secret lives of librarians.
Though you’ve told me several of these stories in person, they’re still engaging, funny, and just as quirky as your own personality. Definitely your sort of humor.