Speaking Volumes

When a small town set out to create a library, it took the first step toward building something far more elusive–a community.

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It is a typical Wednesday at the Town of Johnsburg Library. John, a chimney sweep who sometimes sells cutlery door to door, is studying the classifieds. Joyce, who is retired, is shelving returns. Mitch, a pastor, is talking about fly-fishing with one of his parishioners, a 14-year-old who is also a library volunteer. Voices rise and fall like breathing. Children’s voices, adult voices, and rarely a “shhh” among them. Somewhere in the minutes there is a policy about this: Johnsburg is not to be a quiet library. Other towns have other places–a coffee shop, say, or a park, or even a 7-Eleven–where people come together and do the unconscious work of being neighbors. In Johnsburg, the remote and isolated township in the Adirondack Mountains of New York state where I live, that place is the library.

As if to prove my point, in walks Bill Thomas, taking a break from his job as town supervisor. Maybe he meant to look for a book, but he stops short of the stacks to console a man whose relatives have just lost their house to a fire.

“Got to go back to work,” Bill says after visiting with the man. But he is savvy enough to know that he has been working the whole time.

A woman who cleans houses for seasonal residents comes in with her two children, who disappear into the children’s area and flop down on a beanbag panda. She trails behind, pausing in front of the videos. Over by the videos, too, another mother is trying to get a rise out of her disaffected teenage daughter, who has a tattooed leg and a pierced nose. “It’s really good. It has Dustin Hoffman.” The girl looks skeptical, says nothing. The mom tries again. “I really liked it when I was your age,” she says. She holds out The Graduate as if it were an exotic vegetable, a rare wine. And in a way it is. Videos and books and magazines for free are still a novelty in Johnsburg: The library is just three years old.

Most of the time, we take our civic institutions for granted. They were there before us, they’ll be there after us. In the geologic time of our democracy, they are the mountains and we are the dirt–actually, we are the topsoil, and sooner or later we blow away. Something like that. What I mean is that the institutions we inherit have lives of their own. As individuals, we are consequential only to a point.

But not in Johnsburg. Four years ago, after a quietly insistent one-man campaign, Arnold Stevens convinced the town board to put up money for a library. A friend of mine from New York City guessed that Arnold was a college professor when she heard him speak in church one Sunday. In fact, he’s a carpenter in the local lumberyard. He is also an avid reader, and he was tired of having to drive 45 miles to get to the nearest sizable library. Reluctantly, the board, of which he is a longstanding member, set aside $15,000 and asked three residents–two retired schoolteachers and me–to find six others with whom we could figure out how to do the bunny-from-the-hat trick of turning that amount of money into books and equipment and a librarian.

A year later, when the Town of Johnsburg Library opened in a small room in the back of the town hall, we had 600 books of our own, a librarian who really did materialize from nowhere, and modest expectations. We had ordered 500 library cards, calculating that they would take us through the first year. They took us through the first month. There are now more than 1,700 card-carrying patrons in a township of just over 2,000 people, and 8,000 books on the shelves, and a brand new addition, filled with brand new shelves, because the little room got too crowded and it became necessary to knock down the south wall and push out into the parking lot.

Back in the children’s room, the librarian, Russell Puschak, is introducing a new patron, who is 7, to the shelf of I Can Read books. “You mean I can take as many books as I want?” she asks Russell, and is incredulous when he nods his head. She starts clearing off the shelf, like someone who has won one of those contests where you have 15 minutes to fill a supermarket cart with all the groceries you can grab.

“Take your time,” Russell tells her, but she’s not listening. Or she is listening, but to something else, to the voice of abandon.

This sense of abandon, of freedom, is the unspoken perk of getting a library card. Wander through fiction, picking novels like ripe apples. Huddle over the atlas. In the Johnsburg library, the atlases are right by the window that looks out onto North Creek. The creek joins the Hudson a few hundred yards later, and the river runs to the ocean some 200 miles south, and who knows where that goes. I would like to say that the library trustees put the window over the creek because it was a perfect visual metaphor for the connections and expansiveness that flow when books are shared, but that would be untrue. It just happened to fit there. But it’s an apt metaphor nonetheless.

Which is why, when one of the libraries in our regional system, a library that happens to serve a population that is richer and more numerous than ours, decided to charge nonresidents an annual fee of $128 to borrow materials, people in Johnsburg felt betrayed more than they felt angry. It was as if the library system were one great circuit, and this fee-imposing library were flipping a breaker.

“What do we do,” the Johnsburg library trustees asked each other, “if someone over there requests a book from us through interlibrary loan?” The conversation was heated. Some thought we should refuse, on principle. Others thought we should comply, on principle. But in the end we consoled ourselves with this thought: What could patrons of a big library want from the nominal collection of a small rural library?

Plenty, it turns out. So we send what they request. But we also send a letter. It says: “Hello. Just a little note to let you know that your excellent and huge and well-funded library would not extend the same privilege to us that we are extending to you. [We] believe this to be a rather ungenerous attitude that your town has adopted. We believe in sharing what we have and you are welcome to borrow from our very small and meager resources.”

OK–it’s not very subtle. But neither is charging $128 a year. (Happily, New York State Librarian Janet Welch agrees. She has convened a panel to try to figure out how to keep free libraries free.)

Not long after the Johnsburg library’s board of trustees met to discuss our lending policy, we went back to the town board to ask for more money. We were armed with all sorts of statistics: circulation data that showed that more and more things were going out the door each month, and that Johnsburg residents used the library more than patrons of most other rural libraries. Bill Thomas, whose office is adjacent to the library, listened politely, but was not interested in the numbers. “Everyone knows that the library is the best thing that has happened to this town in a long time,” he said.

The other members of the town board agreed. And this was before we had Internet access or a preschool story hour or a classic movie series followed by a group discussion that routinely packs the house–all for free. And before the book club and the theater group and the Friends of the Library and the army of volunteers, young and old. The budget was doubled, and offered with thanks. It’s gone up since then.

Late one night, i was driving home from a board of trustees meeting. The mountains that ring the town were backlit by a yellow moon. The Hudson ran fast–the ice was out. Most of the houses I passed were dark, and as I went by them I realized I knew almost everyone inside. But more than that: In many cases, I knew what the occupants were reading. It is intimate knowledge, and one more way books bind us. The radio was on, tuned to the only station we can get here in the mountains, an NPR affiliate that was playing Sibelius.

The theme in my head, though, was local and vernacular. It was a rebroadcast of what I’d heard when I took a break from the meeting and stepped out into the corridor. The discussion was about public events–why we shouldn’t charge for them. Earlier we had talked about computers and censorship, adding books to the young adult section, expanding the hours of operation. Those were the particulars, but it was the sound they made together that caught my ear.

In the library, there are books about this sound, some of them very old. The Republic. The Politics. Leviathan. How are we going to live together? That is always the question. In the back of town hall that night, I was hearing the answer.


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