A discussion on Twitter this past weekend asked people to tweet about the libraries they love the most. I follow a lot of writers, so was not one bit surprised by the number of shout-outs for people’s hometown libraries. For those of us who live to read and write, there’s nothing like your first library.
Because I couldn’t possibly cover my feelings for the Fitchburg Public Library in the word limit for tweets, I thought I would expound on the subject here.
My hometown is not a fancy place now, and it wasn’t when I was growing up, either. A small city in central Massachusetts, it’s the home of a state college we called “TC” for Teachers’ College, now known as Fitchburg State University.
But the college wasn’t Fitchburg’s dominant institution when I was a kid, its paper mills were.
The smoke-belching behemoths strung along the banks of the Nashua River made a lot of money for their owners, and in the best tradition of local corporate ownership, their owners invested some of their profits in the community.
The city’s gem was the Fitchburg Public Library, a handsome building on Main Street built by the Wallace family in 1885, which had a separate children’s room as early as 1899.
A lot of towns have libraries built by wealthy benefactors (famously, the Carnegie family) but few boast an entire separate building (connected to the mothership by an indoor walkway) dedicated to the library needs of children. Built in 1950, the Fitchburg Youth Library was paid for with contributions from the city’s youth and another substantial gift from the Wallace family.
Spacious and well-stocked, the Fitchburg Youth Library boasted comfortable, kid-sized chairs in front of a kid-sized fireplace and lots of kid-sized tables where you could spread out and do homework or art projects. The librarians were helpful and knew all of us regulars by name. My mother used to drop me and my sisters at the library when she had a lot of errands to run, knowing we’d be safe and absorbed until she returned.
But the FPL’s dedication to encouraging literacy and library skills among the city’s youth didn’t stop with the stand-alone library—we also had the bookmobile, a retrofitted bus that lumbered up and down the hills of the ‘burg, bringing books to kids and adults who couldn’t get to the main library.
The bookmobile driver was a fellow named Mr. Scott. He and another mobile librarian answered questions and helped us make selections.
When we took out books to the checkout they’d touch the little inky metal part of the card to the tips of our noses, a signal to the entire neighborhood that we’d been to the bookmobile.
In adulthood I’ve held cards at enormous libraries (the Boston Public) and tiny libraries (Friend Memorial in Brooklin, Maine). I spend lots of time at the library in my current community (the wonderful Walker Memorial in Westbrook) and have a special place in my heart for the Peaks Island branch of the Portland Public Library.
I’ve been honored to give readings at dozens of libraries across the state, and I’m continually impressed by the creativity and resourcefulness of local librarians and local library boards as they rise to the challenge of the internet and develop new ways remain engaged with their communities.
I love them all, but if I had to choose the library I hold most dear it would have to be the marvelous little jewel tucked behind the big library in Fitchburg, with an entrance of its own on Newton Place, the place I first found my home among the books.
Commenters: What is your favorite library, and why?
Brenda Buchanan is the author of the Joe Gale Mystery Series, featuring a diehard Maine newspaper reporter who covers the crime and courts beat. Three books—QUICK PIVOT, COVER STORY and TRUTH BEAT—are available everywhere e-books are sold. She is writing a new series that has as its protagonist a Portland criminal defense lawyer willing to take on cases others won’t touch in a town to which she swore she would never return.
Great subject, Brenda. My first job was at the Vose Library in Union, Maine, where I was the librarian’s assistant. There have been discussions on line from time to time about how libraries are no longer needed since we have the internet, and I’m sure those who posit this don’t understand the role of libraries in the lives of so many, including children and teens and those on limited budgets. Some libraries even have meals programs for children in the summers, along with internet access, tax forms, and even advice about employment applications. And they are such distinct and individual spaces. Hooray for giving them a shout out.
I recently read about a library (in Boston, I think) that invites job seekers to check out jackets, ties, scarves and other accessories when they have interviews that require them to dress up more than they usually do. Brilliant! Librarians are endlessly inventive, in my experience. I’m sure John Clark can weigh in on this subject, too.
I love this article, it made me both smile and choke up! I also have very fond memories of the children’s library. My aunt and uncle, who were my babysitters during my preschool years, would pack me up once a week and take me to the library. I was allowed to pick a handful of books to take to their house to read! It was a weekly ritual that I looked forward to, and do believe it installed my love of reading 🙂 I always thought that we were so blessed to have had, as you perfectly stated, such a gem in our city. It was not until years later, when I moved to California and had children of my own, that I realized how special that little library was. I would often tell my girls that I grew up in a small town with a beautiful library, which could rival any children’s library that I ever saw after that! Thanks for affirming my memory.
Thank you for the walk down memory lane! Our Fitchburg Children’s Library was a most magical place for me!! And the Bookmobile’s arrival was even more anticipated than the ice cream man in my neighborhood off South Street. Last summer, I was gifted with the book “The Girl from Fitchburg” last summer. The first chapter is called A Town to Grow Up In❤️.
Since I’ve been in at least 150 Maine libraries as well as many others around the country, it would be hard to pick one, but perhaps the coolest display I’ve seen in libraries was at the National Library of Medicine about twenty years ago. I was in DC for a meeting of the Association of Mental Health Librarians and we got a guided tour. In addition to medical texts going back to the 1400s, they had a mockup of Frankenstein’s monster complete with a Van De Graf generator to send periodic jolts of electricity to the creature’s head. A close second would be the brain research library at McLean Hospital in Belmont Massachusetts. I confess to leading several rounds of ’99 bottles of brains on the wall’ while our library group returned to the conference (also AMHL).
In all honesty, almost every library is a treasure trove for curious and avid readers.
@Your Library Harwich Oracle July 4, 2007
Mary J Metzger
The small Appalachian village I grew up in did not have a library. A bookmobile came out once a month from the county seat. Its librarian wore combat boots and she spoke in harsh, punishing language.
Still, my parents encouraged my reading. My mother loved books, ideas, and writing. She persuaded the bookmobile to set up at satellite library in our front room, two shelves of books for anyone in the village to check out. Our house was like a community center, anyway. Sometimes people walked through it, instead of taking the longer route around our corner lot.
As I moved into a wider world, I relished libraries at every stop. Including here. Eight years ago, by a fateful change in my husband’s employment, we washed ashore 800 miles to Cape Cod. On that first visit we had 48 hours to find a house, a job for me, a school for our daughter, and a town to live in. We found them all in Harwich. Walking that first day from the Harwich High School to the Council on Aging (we knew Grandma would be coming soon to live with us), we passed by Brooks Free Library.
I couldn’t believe a town of this size would have such a beautiful facility.
“This town must have its priorities right,” I thought, never dreaming I would one day work there.
I was right about Harwich and Brooks Free Library.
The library strives hard to live up to its motto “A World Without Limits in the Heart of the Community.” When I look around the library I think, “Where else in these divided times can you find people of different ages, social standing, religious and political persuasions congregating?”
Some visits to BFL begin in utero. Our preschool programs are popular with parents of growing families. I see school-age children meeting their friends at our Homework Center. College students, home on break, use our wireless Internet service. Widowers, facing an empty house 24/7, might show up to quietly read the paper in the company of others. I watch volunteers prepare bags of books to take to the homebound in our community. Our VITAL program has pioneered services for people with vision loss. And, I suspect, some of our winter days have seen the temporary homeless finding a place to get out of the cold.
Visits to the library triple in the summer, with people finding leisure for a little beach reading. And, there is nothing like the sight of summer people on a rainy day, with 10 children in tow, checking out our DVD collection. Though I have sometimes heard complaints, I am grateful that our summer immigrant workers, who make our local economy work, can have access to our 15-minute email stations to catch up with their families at home.
All this comes with a price, of course. And some struggling communities have chosen to close their library’s doors. Brooks Free Library’s year-round residential per capita cost is $42 a year. What a bargain! For the price of one hefty hardback book, a patron has access (with Interlibrary Loan) to anything in print, and a wonderful community asset.
At this time of year I am also reminded of the children’s picture book “Going Someplace Special”, by Patricia C. McKissack. McKissack grew up in the 1950’s in Nashville. In this book she describes how an African American child, like herself, navigated the Jim Crow world. The Nashville Public Library was the only public place she could freely visit. She says . . . “for me, the library was always filled with a specialness.”
Public libraries are a precious part of our national heritage everywhere, but especially here.
Happy Fourth of July Harwich!
My hometown library was in Old Town and I spent many hours there as a child. At that time they limited a young person to only two books loaned, but I was an exception. Those ladies treated me great! At Junior High I read so much that when they converted to not putting your name on the card, the librarian asked my wife if I did anything in school other than reading. Side note this was years later and my wife was a teacher there.
I worked in paper mills most of my life, but now my wife and I work at one of the largest library districts in the country (Las Vegas/Clark County) and may never retire. Free books, cd’s, dvd’s, audio books and all the advance reader books I can read.
Library life is good.