What is a library?

At an annual mtg. of the Friends of the Ilsley Library (April 2022) we hosted a panel to respond to the question, “What is a library?”  Read what some of the panel members shared, as well as our own Barbara’s introduction.  

Barbara Doyle-Wilch, FoIL board member

Throughout my 40-year career as a librarian, I loved to ask the question: “what comes to your mind when asked “what is a library?” Through the years I have heard many different responses: “a great place to find a date”, “walking into an attic full of treasures”, “shushing librarians”, older folks remember “losing library privileges for talking too loud or worse, not returning a book on time!” At the library dedication at Augustana College, the College President addressed the audience saying that the library was “the living room of the College…but NOT the rumpus room!”

Some think of the library as a physical place, the “bricks and mortar”.  A physical place that is inviting and comfortable, maybe even grand.

For some, the intellectual experiences are what make a library. A place where the stories of the world are found and told through a variety of resources. A place where the senses and thoughts are constantly sparked through serendipitous discoveries.

And for some, the community interaction that takes place in a library is the keystone of what a library is to them. It is a place where people of all ages and backgrounds come together to collaborate on projects, discuss ideas or and explore with each other the fun of learning.

Indeed, a library is a complex place!

Dana Hart, director Ilsley Public Library

As a library director, one of my most important jobs is to advocate for my library, and I spend a lot of time trying to communicate our value by explaining just what it is we do here at the Ilsley Public Library. Public libraries offer a huge array of services, collections, programs, and facilities, but most people have a pretty narrow understanding of what goes on at the library. As a general rule, people know how they personally use the library, and tend not to spend too much time thinking about how others might use the library, which is of course reasonable given our busy lives. So tonight I am going to share three ways that I have personally used libraries in my life, and then try to use those examples to pull together an answer to Barbara’s question, “What is a library?”

One of the first significant experiences I had in a library was when I was allowed to volunteer at my local public library. I grew up in Massachusetts, and my family would go to the public library every weekend. We got to know the librarians, and they had a program where Middle School students could volunteer to shelve books. I started doing this for a few hours a week; the librarians gave me a task, usually shelving, and then they left me on my own to do it. This was significant, because, if you think back to your own teenage years, getting your first paying job is really hard. It is tough to get a job when you have zero experience. Volunteering at the library was something I could put on my resume (it was the only thing on my resume!), to show that I had experience taking direction and working independently. I was also able to list the librarians as my references. This actually helped me get my first paying job when I was in high school. So, at that point in my life, the library was a space for workplace preparation for me. I didn’t think of it that way at the time, but looking back on it now, I realize that the library was a launching pad for me, it helped me get that crucial first job. And now, as a librarian, I recognize that this is a service the library provides for many young people; Ilsley actually hires a few high school pages each fall, giving them their first paying job.

The second significant library experience I had came a few years later, when my high school English class visited the Hemmingway archive in the Kennedy Library, in Boston. This is where Hemmingway’s archive is maintained, and we all had the opportunity to work with his original manuscripts, and I was able to see one of his short stories evolve across several drafts. It was a powerful experience for me, because it showed me, for the first time, what original research in the humanities looked like. I realized that reading isn’t a passive exercise; that curious reading can lead to research, which can lead to an insight, which can lead to contribution to a field. So, at that point in my life, a library was an inspirational space. It opened my eyes up to the field of literature, and writing, and allowed me to imagine a future for myself in that field.

I recently had another significant experience in a library, one that surprised even me. As many of you know, I have a one year old daughter, and a few months ago she started crawling. It happened really suddenly; one day I could put her down and she would stay, and the next day she was mobile. Consequently, we had not baby proofed the house, and we have sharp corners and unprotected electrical sockets, and all of our floors are hardwood, which she was slipping all over, and it was just a nightmare. And then I remembered: the Lincoln Library’s children’s area is a huge, open, carpeted square space. So we drove her down to the library, and we let her loose, and we just watched her go. We spent a great morning at the library, connecting with other parents in the children’s room and watching this baby of ours tackling a milestone before our very eyes. We still take her there now, as she is starting to progress to walking, because it is a great, wide open space for her to practice. So, at this particular moment in my life, a library is a safe space for my child to develop her motor functions. And we didn’t study that particular function in library school, but, that is what a library is right now for my family.

So, I could give many more examples of how I’ve used a library, but these are three very different library experiences I’ve had, and I think that, taken together, they provide an answer to the question “What is a library,” which is: a library is a constant. A library is something you can count on to be there for you throughout your life. That doesn’t mean that libraries are static, or that the way we use them doesn’t change over time. Far from it; the way we use libraries evolves throughout our lives, and we never know what we might need from a library in the future. But libraries are always there when we need them, and they contain what we need at that point in time. 

This is true in big ways (for example, we support early childhood literacy, which is crucial for making sure all children have the opportunity to thrive in their education) and it is true in small ways (for example, most people don’t realize just how much they need the Ilsley Public Library until they find themselves either needing to use a restroom or charge a dead cellphone when they are in downtown Middlebury). But those are real, and pressing, needs, and the library meets them. The library also meets needs that most of us hope we never have (for example, staying warm during the winter, or filling up a jug of water from the library water fountain because your well is dry). But these are real needs, too, and I think we can agree we all want to live in a society where this kind of support exists in our local communities.

And so, even though there are many good ways to answer the question, “what is a library,” to me, it is an institution that might play a greater or lesser role at different moments in our lives—and the role it plays will likely change many times—but ultimately, a library is always there when you need it.   

 Jim Gish, Middlebury Community Liaison

When I started thinking about tonight’s topic—what is a library, to me—I realized that I love the idea of a library as much as the physical space that gives a library its special magic.  Like most of you here tonight, I came to libraries as a kid.  Today my wife and I are awash in books we own.  But when we were young, nearly everything we read came from the library.  Those books opened up to us a world of imagination and a way of imagining the world and you found them at the library.

I can still picture the exact shelf at the Westfield NJ Public Library where I discovered a book on Fort Ticonderoga and the exploits of Roger’s Rangers during the French and Indian War.  In one of those wonderful unexpected turns in life, I ended up as an adult moving close to Lake Champlain and for the past 20 years we’ve been active members of the Fort Ticonderoga Association and frequent visitors to the fort.  I guess you could say that my childhood experiences in the library foreshadowed my life as an adult. 

Later on libraries became a place to research school papers and that meant learning the ins and outs of card catalogs and the Dewey Decimal shelving system, no easy task.  One of my summer jobs while attending Swarthmore College was to update the college’s card catalog.  Accessing information digitally now is second nature, but I loved the feel of those cards and the special shelving that housed them.  As life went on, libraries became the place to introduce our children to the joys of reading.

Shortly after we moved to Middlebury in 1998, my son Jack and I inaugurated what we came to call “Libs Night.”  Back then Ilsley was open on Tuesday and Thursday evenings until 8 and so most Tuesday nights after dinner Jack and I would head over to the library, books in hand, and camp out for a couple of hours until the announcement came over the PA, “Attention please, Ilsley Library will be closing in 10 minutes.  Please bring your materials to the front desk for checkout.”  Those were fun times.

As the Ilsley Public Library was celebrating its 75th birthday in 1999, I had an opportunity to serve as Chair of the Board of Trustees for 4 years.  I was then asked to serve on the Vermont State Library Board, which I did for another 7 years.  That time gave me an appreciation for the real-world challenges of running a library or a library system.  What it took to create that library magic.  It also made me think about libraries as a resource that could serve the community in many different ways, according to the needs of the times and the people.

One of the most consistently discussed issues at the state level was broadband.  The idea of creating a seamless digital pathway between our libraries and their communities is pretty appealing.  We’ve seen its value during the pandemic and it’s interesting to think what the digital Ilsley experience might look like 25 years from now.  But for me, it will always be about the physical space.  The library.  A place full of books waiting to be discovered, to be read, and to become part of our lives.

I’m committing my time to serving on the Ilsley 100 project team because I believe in the idea of Ilsley Library and its importance to our community.  During the six years I spent as community liaison for our downtown construction project, I saw firsthand what a difference it makes when people find a way to get involved in the life of their community.  So I’m looking forward to working with the people of our town to envision Ilsley’s future as a building and as a library.                                               

Steve Gross, writer 

What does the Ilsley Library mean to me?  For some reason this question made me think of a famous ballad recorded by the great Paul Robeson in1947 entitled: The House I Live In.   The song opens with this question: What is America to me?  Early on in the song is the phrase: A certain word, democracy and the song ends with the line:  But especially the people, that’s America to me. 

These lines are easily applied to a free public library such as the Ilsley because it provides an enlightened democratic space for the people, and that means all of the people in our community. 

That is why, as a writer facing a looming book deadline and a dwindling sense of the possibility of meeting that deadline, I was able to find a commodious place where I was not merely tolerated but where I actually belonged. And of course, that place was here at our town’s library.  Think of how few places there are like this in our world where you belong just by showing up.  I cannot tell you how nurturing it was to find such a place. 

The tables, chairs, outlets and WIFI all helped, of course. But, as the song says, it was especially the people, and I mean the great staff of friendly professionals, and the patrons they helped, that made such a difference. 

The hard work of writing remained the same, of course, but nearly everything else was better. Instead of too much aloneness, I was amidst lots of people from our community. Some were studying, some chatted quietly with friends, while others got help with schoolwork. Our purposes varied but we shared a common space as co-workers. That lifted my spirits and started me on a new, more productive part of my writing journey. 

And here is the result. My book deals with ways educators can work with, rather than be bowled over by turbulence. Being able to come here regularly certainly helped to stabilize me at a challenging time, thereby reducing the turbulence I felt to a manageable level. 

And here’s something powerful that I found along the way: When I became a co-worker at the Ilsley, I helped to grow this community hub by connecting with others in a democratic space. 

The chance to connect and share, of hoping to add just a bit to the way we see and experience this world at such a turbulent time, is a privilege and a gift. Finding a place where that can happen is a rare discovery and that discovery is what the Ilsley means to me: a space where we can belong, create, learn, and share. I am deeply grateful.                                                                              

Grace Vining, student at MUHS 

I am 8 years old. Walking into my Elementary School library is like walking into another world. The shelves nearly reach the ceiling, filled with stories, most of which I’ve never heard of. I’ve never been a big reader before, I have a visual processing disorder, and my eyes perceive letters at different speeds, making it hard for me to concentrate. In fact, before today, I had never willingly been to a library on my own before. My school librarian smiles down at me, and asks me if I need help looking for anything in particular. I say no, because I honestly had no idea what I’m looking for. So, I browse around for a while, already a bit bored and disoriented, and almost ready to give up, before something catches my eye. A bright blue paperback, featuring two young kids riding the backs of sea creatures. The title of the story was, “The Magic Treehouse Series: Dolphins at Daybreak”. I pick up the book and look at the back, the story is of these two siblings: Jack (age 8), and Annie (age 7), who go on fantastical quests in this magic treehouse in a forest near their home, every time they go to the treehouse, which has a library inside of it, and open a new book, they are transported to a different location, a different moment in time. So far, they’ve been to medieval England, the age of the dinosaurs, ancient Egypt, the Amazon rainforest, and in this adventure, they travel in an underwater submarine, accompanied by dolphins and a giant octopus! I check the book out and bring it home, and I read it all in one sitting. I am enraptured by the story and the way that my imagination can take me to places I’ve never even been. This feeling, I just know for certain, I’ll remember for the rest of my life. A wanderlust, but I never even had to leave my room. Because just like Jack and Annie, I can go on magical adventures, too. Over the next few months, I read all of the published Magic Treehouse books out there, and eagerly await each upcoming addition to their adventures. 

I am 12 years old. Middle school started a couple months ago, and all of my friends are obsessed with the Percy Jackson series. I pick up the first book and find myself laughing out loud on nearly every other page. Percy has made me feel seen as a middle schooler, all of the weird new aspects of life, the struggles of locker combinations, the rapid changes in height and shoe size. Percy knows what it feels like to not fit in at school. Percy knows what it’s like to feel like your best friend in the world is your mom. He gets it. He gets me. Sometimes I feel too nervous in between classes to talk with my peers, or I just need some time to myself, so I turn to my books. When I feel like I can’t express myself, I know that my books will get it. I know that my favorite characters will understand me. From Percy Jackson to Harry Potter to The Wings of Fire series, I can lose myself in these tales of fantasy and dragons and wizardry, in a way that makes me feel as though I’ve lived a thousand lives through the stories I’ve read. Through my hardest times, through life’s scariest moments, my books were there to comfort me, and to make me feel understood. That connection is irreplaceable.

I am 16 years old. The Coronavirus pandemic has just begun, and for the first time in my life, I can’t go to the library. I can’t walk into the young adult section and check out a half dozen books, I can’t examine the shelves for new releases, I can’t spend an afternoon sitting on the floor by my favorite stories, truly at peace. In those first weeks of March of 2020, like so much of the world, I was at a loss for purpose. Where do we go from here? How am I gonna pass the time? And as always, I turned to books. Books gave me my love for the world. They give me hope for the future, hope for myself, hope for my community. Books let me laugh and cry when I need to, books let me experience a million different perspectives and live in a million different places even when I can’t leave my house. Thankfully for libby, the online library service that I quickly discovered during quarantine, I was able to check out Ebooks and audiobooks for free as much as I liked. But the physical aspect of reading, the ability to trace my favorite quotes with the tip of my finger and hold the story in my hands, has been taken away. I use my birthday money to get kindle books or buy books whenever I can, but I miss the library every day. 

I am 18 years old. I recently declared my entrance into Bard College, a small liberal arts school in Rhinecliff, New York, where I plan to major in Literature and Human Rights. I read every chance I get, and I go to my school library to check out new books nearly every week. When I feel sad or lost, I turn to books. When I need advice, I turn to books. When I need a good cry, I turn to my favorite books. And although I am lucky enough to be able to buy paperback books with my allowance, or read on my kindle, not everyone has that privilege. The ability of libraries to provide reading for people, and especially young people, free of cost, is one of the aspects of life that I am most grateful for. Nothing to me feels as special as checking out an unreasonable number of books from my local library, carrying them home in my arms, and tier ranking the ones I need to read first in order of priority on my bedroom floor. Books are my sanctuary and my truest love. And I will forever be grateful to that very first library in second grade that brought me to the Magic Treehouse Series, for sparking my love of reading, and for allowing me entrance into the safe haven that is books. 

What is a library, you ask? To me, a library is home.