Joys and Challenges of Small Public Libraries

(from Maine Townsman, May 2003)
by Carolyn Pardise, Director, Casco Public Library

The other day one of our library trustees, a local doctor, was collecting our trash at the library for his weekly run to the dump, when two young girls ran gleefully through the room.  He paused to smile at them as they resumed their organization of all the stuffed animals in the children’s play area. “What would Gladys say?” he asked me.  Of course we both knew the answer to that . . .  “shhhhh…!”      

How times have changed. And how marvelously have libraries and librarians adapted to those changes.       

Gladys was Casco’s first librarian. We know her spirit still visits because it is the only explanation for why books are knocked off shelves during the night or something goes missing for a while only to turn up later right where it should be.       

Change is hard but essential for us to retain a dynamic presence in our town. Like hundreds of other multi-talented librarians throughout the state of Maine, we are dedicated to accommodating the needs of our community. This requires more than professional goals. It demands a personal commitment.       

During the past few weeks I have been working with some of our trustees to update the Director’s job description. What was a one page document just 15 years ago has become a three page highly detailed outline of duties with many references to technology.       

Half a page is devoted to “facilities management.”  Previously there was one word “housekeeping” with no description.       

Directly beneath the housekeeping category were listed the qualifications for the job, three of which were: “ability to work alone,” “good health,” and “imagination.”  I firmly believe these qualifications should have carried over to the new job description.  The ability to work alone is handy when you must digest all the issues related to library work these days and reiterate them in an intelligible way to your board.  Good health is essential for lifting books, cleaning bathrooms, vacuuming, chopping ice off walkways, and keeping up with the grounds.  And imagination is the only tool that will preserve your sanity as you realize that people who clean for a living probably make more than you do.       

Housekeeping was just one of the issues addressed by our local support group, the “Loose Librarians,” during our last meeting. These women represent many of the small public libraries nestled in the lakes region. All of them constantly struggle with budget constraints, which require them to do much of the dirty work so that they can provide their patrons with the books and services so indispensable in a rural community. Living in the lakes region, our population triples in the summertime. Our visitors come from all over the world. (As many as a dozen foreign languages are spoken via our computers.) Most hail from cities on the East Coast, where they are accustomed to libraries with extensive collections and services. Yet they almost always comment on what a pleasure it is for them to feel so at home in our library.       

Every summer we introduce participants of the Seeds of Peace camp to the library.  I’ll never forget the first time I led a tour and a man from the Middle East kept asking me, “This is all for free?” Of course, we know nothing is free, but encounters such as that reinforce the importance of what we do on a daily basis.       

One of the greatest privileges in library work is assisting a patron in locating whatever material they might require. Sometimes in this quest we are allowed to enter their private domains, where they contend with all manner of problems. It can be heartbreaking, yet I am always so impressed by people’s constant striving to improve their situations. In one recent week we assisted a patron, upset by the war, seeking diversion and meaning in poetry, as well as a recently laid-off professional at loose ends. We helped a woman, losing her sight, to receive her first shipment of Talking Books (audiobooks) from the Maine State Library’s Outreach department.       

During that same week we hosted a Maine Humanities discussion group, provided a story time for our local Headstart, science and writing classes for our homeschoolers and a meeting place for a book club, yoga group, quilting group, and a lakes advisory committee.   

Small libraries often depend on volunteers for day-to-day operations. These days there’s a lot of concern about volunteers constituting a violation of patrons’ right to privacy. After September 11 and the Patriot Act we’ve had to concern ourselves with many aspects of privacy — recordkeeping, etc. — that taint the small town flavor of our library.  Personally I love having volunteers involved in all aspects of our library work. It’s very gratifying to see them take ownership of various tasks, and I believe more than ever in the importance of opportunities to use talent locally.       

We have two 90-year-old women who have been volunteering in our library for years. One has even endeavored to conquer the computer, although this often involves her banging on keys and voicing (loudly) her dissatisfaction with the whole idea, while we cringe in the background.  What really makes me cringe, however, is when these women suggest that they have outlived their usefulness.       

When I first began working at Casco, one of our veteran volunteers told me the most enchanting tale about her grandmother. She was a nature lover, raising her children in Massachusetts, when a new boy joined their school. She suggested to her kids that they invite him over for a visit. They did, and the boy became a frequent visitor, relishing the long walks she led through the woods and meadows describing all the wildlife and their habits. Years later, when relatives were going through this grandmother’s belongings, they came upon a complete set of Thornton Burgess’ Old Mother West Wind books. The author, who thanked her for introducing him to the world of nature, had inscribed each one.       

Speaking of wildlife, there has been a tradition in our library, beginning with Gladys, of the director bringing her dog to work. For many of the children who enter the library, this can be the highlight of their visit. We’re still asked where that “spotted dog” is, (the Dalmatian belonging to our former director, who left over a year ago). Dogs are also welcome to visit and their people are just delighted to have an opportunity to socialize together. We have our regular cast of characters and a special “cookie” jar just for them.  Natalie and Bailey, a pair of cocker spaniels, run right to it. Gus, a search-and-rescue dog, prefers to check out our trashcans before he amazes the patrons with his ability to locate any book his master has “scented.”  Boomer has to find the ball that’s always hidden somewhere in the library. Patrons bring their new puppies just as they do their new babies to introduce them.       

Our current “working” library dog is Sophie. She looks like a miniature English sheepdog with black fur over her eyes. If you come to visit us, she’ll most likely be sitting in one of the two office chairs at the circulation desk. Her specialty is transporting herself there without being observed. While Sophie steals the limelight, there are many people behind the scenes who endeavor to keep Casco Public Library updated in its collection, technology, and services.

With little public recognition and annually being called on to defend our budgets at town meeting, this is truly a labor of love for the people who work in Maine's small town libraries.