Diary: Sue Halpern and Her Town Build a Library (Part 1)

I suspect that every writer has a library story. Probably more than one library story. When I was a child I made my parents sign me up for three different libraries—I think because they all had contests where you could win prizes for reading the most books. When I was a teenager, I made regular visits to each of those libraries, checking to see if J.D. Salinger had published a new book.

As an undergraduate, every time I stepped into the Sterling Memorial Library at Yale, with its cathedral ceilings and stone archways, I was reminded that, for some of us, education is a secular religion. In graduate school at Oxford, I had to sign a pledge not to “kindle a fire” in the Bodleian Library before I could use it.

But I didn’t write my dissertation there. I moved back to New York, and, every afternoon before my graveyard shift as a proofreader at a law firm, I’d go to the main reading room at the New York Public Library. I’d sit at one of those long wooden tables and read and take notes and work out my thesis—how it would be possible to attain democracy in fundamentally fractured societies. And every afternoon, around 4 p.m., a couple of panhandlers would come in, order up catalogs of rare coins, and spread that day’s collection on the table opposite me, looking to see if, maybe, just maybe, their luck had turned. And it seemed to me then, and even more so afterward, that, between us, we represented the hopefulness that attends public libraries.

I say “more so afterward,” because a few years later my husband and I moved out of New York City, to a remote hamlet in the Adirondack Mountains that sits at the corner of the three poorest counties in New York State. That hamlet is part of the largest township in New York by area—over three hundred thousand acres, and one of the smallest by population—around two thousand.

The township was served by an aging bookmobile that came through the mountains once a month, and when it was finally unfit to drive, the regional library consortium couldn’t afford to replace it. There was a ballot initiative in the township spurred by a member of our town board, a man named Arnold Stevens who worked at the lumber yard. For less than $10 per person, he figured, we could have our own library.

The ballot initiative failed. People didn’t see the point. Or they just didn’t have any money to spare. Or they thought, as one man said, that a library was “communist.”

Arnold did not give up, and somehow, a few years later, managed to wrestle $15,000 from the town budget, and the town board asked me and two retired teachers to turn that $15,000 into a library. They gave us a room at the back of the town hall and all the good wishes in the world, because wishes were the only thing that was going to turn that money into a room with books and shelves to put them on, and tables and chairs, and a system for keeping track of what went out the door and whether it came back, and … also … a librarian. Fifteen thousand dollars.

We put a help-wanted ad in the weekly shopper. And, in what would be the second miracle in this better-than-Field-of-Dreams story, it was answered by a young man, Russell Puschak, who had just moved to the area from Seattle, where he had been running a used bookstore in the Pike Place Market. We had our librarian.

We assembled a board of directors. And while they were searching for people to build bookshelves and businesses to donate the lumber, Russell and I spent a month driving every day an hour and a half to the regional library consortium stacks, to pick out the more than three thousand books that would sit on those shelves, to make sure that what we were offering would be of value and interest to our particular constituency, which was one of hunters and craftspeople and children learning to read and homesteaders and homeschoolers and people, like Arnold, hungry to feed their minds.

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Building a connected world through reading

Apparently, there are rules if your library is going to be an official public library. Who knew? We were a group of rank amateurs. So when we read the requirements for a provisional charter from the State of New York, which we would have to meet to be eligible for state funding, we figured we were confused because we were rookies. Because nowhere did the requirements mention that we needed to have books in our library. We read those rules a bunch of times. No books. They did, however, require that we have two computers. At the time, computers cost about $2,000 each, which meant that if we were to buy them, we’d have $11,000 for our library. And this was crazy.

So I did what writers do, and wrote an op-ed column for The New York Times, arguing that these rules penalized small, underfunded efforts like ours. But, really, it was a plea for help. And help came. Every publisher in New York started sending us books. The Book of the Month Club sent us every new book they were going to publish for a year, which meant that our tiny library suddenly had every bestseller before anyone else. The CEO of one of the biggest database companies sent us the two computers we needed to apply for our charter. He also included a five-year subscription to two of his company’s most popular databases, which meant that our tiny library in the back of the town hall was now a research library.

[To be continued!]

This essay is adapted from Sue Halpern’s presentation of the Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence in Fiction and Nonfiction for the American Library Association (ALA). Sue Halpern is the author of six books in addition to Summer Hours at the Robbers Library, on subjects as diverse as memory, solitude, and butterflies. She has also written extensively about the impact of technology on contemporary life. She is a contributing writer at The New Yorker.

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By the way, we wrote about bookmobiles last summer. Turns out they’ve had a powerful role in the history of American reading.

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Image: Greeting from the Town of Johnsburg Library