Friday, September 24, 1999
How Libraries Have Changed: A Bird's Eye View
Since May, when the Gleason Public Library took up temporary residence in the Carlisle Institute on Westford Street, next door to the Carlisle Mosquito, I have had an opportunity to see a modern library in day-to-day operation. Patrons of the library pass by my window as my colleagues and I put out the newspaper each week. Working in such close quarters, it is only natural that we at the Mosquito have had a bird's-eye view of what goes on at the library. It has been a wonderful opportunity to really get to know the library staff, plus the ability to check out information or take out a book with the greatest of ease.
At the risk of dating myself, this experience has made me think back to the local library I grew up with in Madison, Wisconsin in the 1940s and to compare it with what I see going on in a library of today. I realize the Gleason Public Library will be a much different institution once it moves back into its expanded and renovated quarters in the center of town, but even this glimpse into their temporary quarters has opened my eyes to how much libraries have changed over the past half-century.
Libraries of the '40s
Thinking back to my childhood, it was not unusual for my father to drop me off at the library most Saturday mornings on his way to the local sporting goods store, just a few blocks away, to rehash Friday night's football or basketball game with the other high school coaches in town. This gave me several hours on my own to pick out books, use the stereopticon to look at exotic sights in far off places, and get started on the latest Dr. Dolittle adventure orheaven forbidthe latest Nancy Drew mystery story.
The library, as I remember it, had a large reading room filled with wall-to-wall books, round tables and chairs, few patrons and a decidedly hushed atmosphere about it. The librarian would check out my books with few comments, although I could tell from her expression that Nancy Drew was not a book she felt a young reader like myself should be reading.
The library was a quiet place, maybe quieter than most, since Madison is a college town with a fine university library just down the street. But I think that's what most libraries were like back in those days.
Libraries of the 20th century
The Gleason Public Library, situated for the moment, right next door to the Mosquito office, appears to be a completely different kind of institution. Here one finds much more than a collection of books to be checked out. Libraries of the late 20th century, like Gleason, now have books in large print, paperbacks, books on tape, music CDs, videotapes of fine old and new movies, as well as videos of some of the classic Masterpiece Theatre TV series of the past. There are newspapers and a large collection of magazines available, many of which are very specialized in naturenot just copies of The Saturday Evening Post, Life, Collier's or Better Homes and Garden that were popular in my day.
Computers come to the library
By far the biggest change for libraries, however, has been the use of computers, which began in 1975. Gleason Public Library Director Ellen Rauch, a library science major at Simmons College at the time, worked at the Cambridge Public Library, which had one of the first computerized systems. She remembers having had no idea back then what effect this new technology would have on libraries of the future. "The technology has been the biggest motivator of changes in libraries," says Rauch. "It is exceptional that public libraries were in the forefront with computers. When computers came along, they eliminated the quiet, behind- the-scenes, manual, time consuming, labor-intensive work that was required of librarians. They gave database records. The computer has freed up the librarian so she can spend more time with the public," adds Rauch. "Videos are another major change," notes Rauch. "Not everyone is a reader and not everyone relates to print. More formats are available, responding to what people need."
Libraries have changed and the public has high expectations of their library. "Libraries are a place of activity, at least a certain level of activity," Rauch is quick to explain. There is a growing use in libraries of librarians who are no longer generalists. Librarians need special skills and training for specific parts of the job. "We know how to get at information and the public expects us to be a source for getting that information," continued Rauch.
A full-service library
The Gleason Public Library means different things to different people. Almost any day of the week, retirees sitting around the reading table going over the morning newspaper take time out to say hello and exchange pleasantries with acquaintances returning books. Patrons with an interest in stocks and bonds can use the library's Value/Line and Morningstar volumes to study investments. During the summer, 32 children attended the library's story-hour for young children, while 141 older children took part in the summer reading program.
For readers who wish to obtain a book that the library either does not own or that has been checked out, a request from the library by e-mail to Andover, the regional center, can often produce books on loan from another library in less than three days. I can vouch for that speedy service. As I work at my desk, I often observe as a van pulls up in front of the library door and a carton filled with books is delivered each morning. Now I call that service!
Friday afternoons, one of the busiest times of the week at the library, students come seeking information via computers to be used over the weekend on school projects. Checking out a video is also a popular Friday afternoon pursuit. Then there are patrons with long daily commutes to work who come to the library eager to find engrossing books on tape to ease the long hours spent in the car.
Yes, the role of the library in our community, as well as that of libraries in general, has changed dramatically over the years. And I expect there is more to come, especially when the Gleason Library has space that can truly be called home.
© 1999 The Carlisle Mosquito