You can tell almost everything you need to know about a town by looking at its public schools and its public library. Towns that invest in education and literacy are great places to live. Towns that don’t aren’t.
I was pleased to see that the library referendums in Cape Elizabeth, where Thomas Memorial Library was seeking $4 million (after losing a bid for $6 million in 2012), and Falmouth, where Falmouth Memorial Library was looking for $2.8 million, passed easily. Cape and Falmouth are the kinds of places where libraries thrive as social and cultural amenities.
Last year, voters in Yarmouth approved a $1.5 million bond to renovate Merrill Memorial Library, the virtual heart of that bedroom community. Local residents pledged another $1 million and the work on Merrill Memorial is almost complete.
The Yarmouth library, which has been closed since January and has operated out of a temporary site most of the year, is scheduled to re-open in December with a new roof, elegant side entry, new ventilation system, new lighting, redesigned interior, and vastly expanded third-floor spaces.
The renovation, designed by Barba & Wheelock Architecture and executed by Landry/French Construction Co., upgrades a facility that is already the envy of suburban libraries in Maine, providing what library Director Heidi Grimm describes as “a signature building in an historic district that is pedestrian and bicycle friendly.”
I toured the library renovation recently with Grimm, architect Nancy Barba and library President Gro Flatebo. Though Carolyn and I made a small donation to the library capital campaign, I really wasn’t sure about the need for a major renovation at the time. But now that it is completed and I see the fully realized potential of the building, I am happy to report that it was well worth the modest community investment.
I love libraries. I was a librarian in a former life. I met my lovely wife in a library. I find my pulse rate and respiration slow when I enter a library, probably something to do with feeling safe and at home amidst the collected knowledge and wisdom of the world. I love the sense of order and the shared experience.
Public libraries are wonderful examples of how we can all own something in common without actually being socialists. They are lessons in sharing the wealth. I have a ton of books right here in my office (I know because the movers told me), but in Merrill Memorial I held a stake in another 43,000 items.
As a library junkie, I hold borrowers cards (albeit some expired) from Portland Public Library, Maine College of Art, USM, Bowdoin College, Merrill Memorial and, as of a few weeks ago, Curtis Memorial Library in Brunswick. I not only enjoy access to the collected documents, but I like the fact that libraries are open to all. You don’t have to justify your presence when you go to the library. You can just browse and read to your heart’s content. I have spent some very pleasant hours doing research at little study carrels in the Bowdoin stacks.
I like to flatter myself that I was a pretty good librarian when I worked at Portland Public back in the 1970s. I did my best to connect the reading public with the books they wanted and the information they needed. I looked at every reference query as a mystery to be solved and developed a sixth sense for locating mis-shelved books. But my eight years as a public servant at PPL pale in comparison to the services rendered by more committed colleagues.
A great librarian, by which I mean one who is both knowledgeable and dedicated, is a cultural treasure. I think of Nick Payson and Bill Barry, who have repeatedly opened the arcana of the Maine Historical Society library and archive to me over the years. Zip Kellogg at USM and Paul Dostie at Curtis Memorial are also consummate pros.
Then there’s Abraham Schechter, the old soul of PPL’s Portland Room, who has spent untold hours inventorying, indexing and cataloging the local past, so that we might all have access to it. Paul D’Alessdandro used to be my go-to guy at PPL, but since he left, Schechter has stepped into the breach. If he can’t find it, it probably doesn’t exist.
Though information technology has progressed to the point where we have the world at our fingertips, able to access the stored data in countless collections with a few well-placed keystrokes, I remain a confirmed bibliophile. Give me a building full of books, a place to sit and a librarian who can find what I want, and I am a happy man.