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

[Read Part One of this post here!]

In anticipating opening our town’s first library, we had ordered five hundred library cards. There were around two thousand residents in the township’s six hamlets, and we expected that it would take a year before those five hundred cards had been handed out. Three weeks after we opened, we had to order five hundred more. We went through those in the next six months. By year’s end, fifteen hundred people had library cards.

If the story ended there, it would be inspiring—a box office hit, with Kevin Costner as Arnold Stevens. But, of course, once you put books into the hands of children, once you provide a warm, comfortable place to sit and read a newspaper or a magazine, once you put people in close proximity to each other, the story goes on and writes itself. Before long, our library had a preschool story hour cosponsored by Head Start. Then some library patrons started a book group. We began showing movies and having different members of the community lead a discussion afterward. Then some regulars at movie night started a play-reading group.

I want to emphasize that this was a hardscrabble town, rich in natural beauty but short on ways to make a living. What work there was, was largely seasonal—logging, running the lifts at the nearby ski area, cleaning the condos of the tourists who skied there. Many of the buildings on the one main street were boarded up. Most people were living at the margins. So maybe not the sort of place that would have a book group or a movie group or a play-reading group—except that it was. Here was the empirical proof that culture—for lack of a better word—is not the exclusive province of the wealthy or well-educated.

We did have one fabulously wealthy man on our library board. A man who had retired to the mountains after running the company that makes all the fragrances in your candles and soaps. And when he came to movie night and saw people crammed into the back of the town hall, and after he joined the play-reading group, which hoped, one day, to mount a performance, he and his wife decided to build, and to endow, an arts center across the street from the library.

Then the daughter of one of the construction workers there asked that man for a loan to build a coffee shop and bakery in one of the boarded-up buildings. So now we had a library, an arts center, and a café. Not long afterward, our board was approached by the children of a woman who had grown up in our town, in a cabin with no running water or electricity, reading by the light of a kerosene lantern. She had recently died, and when they were cleaning out her house in New Jersey they saw that she had saved my New York Times op-ed, and they told us that in her honor they would fund an addition to our library.

That one-room library at the back of the town hall is now a three-and-a half room library. It has forty thousand items on its shelves. Books, board games, puzzles, maps, magazines. It hosts over 130 events a year. The book group survives, and now there’s a knitting group, too. And in keeping with our original intent to serve our particular constituency, in the winter, in addition to checking out books, and CDs, and movies, you can check out snowshoes.

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When people ask me why I wrote a novel set in a library, I say it’s because of what I learned there and what I know: libraries are transformative. They change lives. They change communities. Andrew Carnegie knew this, and he, too, knew this firsthand. When I was writing Summer Hours at the Robbers Library I had two libraries guiding me: our small, Town of Johnsburg Library, in the Adirondacks, and the first Carnegie library, in Braddock, Pennsylvania, which I happened to visit when I was working on a piece for the New York Times Magazine.

That library, which is august and a bit moth-eaten, not unlike the library in Summer Hours, is an architectural lesson in Carnegie’s desire to have spaces where people could exercise mind and body. There is a tunnel running at least half a mile, from Carnegie’s steel mill to the library, with showers and lockers, so steelworkers could come directly from work. There are rooms full of books, of course, but there is also a gymnasium, and a swimming pool, and a 964-seat, velvet-curtained theater and music hall. Libraries are transformative. They can turn someone who has just put in ten or twelve hours tending a blast furnace, someone who may be an immigrant like Carnegie himself, into a basketball player, a reader, a patron of the arts, a performer, a citizen.

And it has occurred to me in recent years—and maybe to you, too—as the Trump Administration’s proposed federal budgets have sought to eliminate funding for public libraries, that our politicians know this, too, and it scares them. Libraries are where people who are new to this country go to learn and practice English. It’s where people go to take citizenship classes. It’s where people go to find jobs, to come in from the cold or from the heat, to do their homework, to learn history. And it’s where they go to read novels, and in so doing develop empathy—empathy that might, for instance, prompt them to react in horror to separating children from their parents and putting them in cages.

I think sometimes of the man who said “libraries are communist,” and I know what he means. Libraries promote the ethos of sharing. They promote community. They are welcoming. They are welcoming to everyone. And if this is not threatening enough to those who benefit from our mutual isolation, there’s also this: Libraries are repositories of our collective experience—they enable us to understand where we’ve come from and where we are and where we might be going. And that shines a light on what is true and what is real and what matters. 

I have a doctorate in democratic theory. But librarians—librarians have advanced degrees in democratic practice. Libraries were created in this country to supplement public education. They were seen to be essential to the democratic—small d—project. If you are going to have a democracy for, by and of the people, you need an informed electorate. This has always been true, and seems to become more important every day. Which means that in addition to everything else librarians do, they are actively engaged in sustaining our democracy. They are not just on the front lines—they are the front line.

In Summer Hours at the Robbers Library, Kit, the protagonist, who is a librarian, realizes how her soon-to-be former husband, a neurosurgeon, thinks of her profession when he says, during a court proceeding, “I had my career, and she had her job.” And then Kit says: “I realize no one thinks being a librarian is as awesome as being a neurosurgeon, but I always thought I was doing something valuable, putting books in the hands of readers. Books—and libraries—can save lives, too. I really believe that.”

So do I.

Read our Notebook on the threat to funding for libraries.

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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Image: Scenes from the Town of Johnsburg Library