The charms of a small-town library

Modern libraries may have up-to-the-minute technology, but they lack the friendly, nostalgic feel of their older counterparts.

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There has been talk of building a new library in our town. Some think it is what this place needs; others are for sticking with what we have. I'm in the latter camp. It's true our small-town library has no computers, no interlibrary loan system, no DVD collection. There is no self-service checkout where you scan the bar code on your book, just as at the supermarket.

What our town has is unique: The library is more a reading room than a repository with technological aids; more a literary salon – although a loosely structured one – than a hushed space with little interaction among patrons.

Our library is located on the second floor of a solid brick building. On the lower level are a fudge shop and drugstore.

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As you ascend to the second level from the door on the street, the smell of fudge and caramel permeates the stairwell. And just across the street is a cookie bakery, so that reading and sweet food are forever linked in the minds of patrons.

During my lifetime, I've been a card-carrying member of several small-town libraries – some adjoined to police stations, some to firehouses. But the best library combo is with a fudge shop.

The two women who alternate as librarians know nearly everyone who comes through the double doors. Instead of keeping a card in their possession, patrons have a card that remains in the drawer at the circulation desk.

When I moved to the area, I became No. 15,821. No number is ever retired, no card thrown out. When a book is checked out, the card in the sleeve at the back is slipped out and the borrower's number and due date written there. One of the librarians has come across book cards with her number (a three-digit one) and due dates in 1939.

When I've visited some of the lovely new libraries in nearby counties, I've been reminded of the supermarket experience of choosing your "product" and checking it out, or standing in line to have it checked out at a counter where the library employee is unlikely to comment on your choices.

These new libraries have high-ceilinged foyers, marble floors, intricate wood molding, and clerestory windows. But they don't have the patina of the past, the décor of nostalgia that calls one back to childhood Saturday mornings spent in a library.

Do these new public facilities with banks of computers have a faded globe on its stand, radiators hissing softly beneath the tall windows that look out on a wedge of harbor, or a sculpture of a cougar?

Do they have a grouping of chairs that resembles parlor furniture from the early 20th century? And do they have that object that is all but extinct: a card catalog with narrow oak drawers holding thousands of 3-by-5-inch cards?

Our library, which started as a village reading room more than 100 years ago, has never received public funds. It is supported by con­tributions from residents, with some sizable bequests from "summer people." Yet it is surely a public in­stitution because it caters to the public.

The librarians are familiar with everyone's tastes and know what customer service is all about. Their buying budget is based on readers' requests. And they know their readers' interests.

When a 92-year-old patron stops in for his weekly visit, he finds several books on World War II waiting for him on the corner of the circulation desk.

Another man who reads to residents at the county care center mentioned that novels presented a problem. Many of the folks couldn't remember the previous week's chapters. The librarian got busy and soon had a stack of short-story anthologies, so the reading could be completed in one session.

A sign over the metal return chute beside the outside entrance requests that readers hand deliver their books if the library is open. But one doesn't just place the books on the circulation desk and leave.

The librarian will ask, "What did you think?" or "Did you like this?" Engaged readers march in the door voicing a positive or negative review before plunking down the books.

A straight-back chair is always positioned beside the circulation desk for chats with the librarian.

If that chair is occupied, a three-way conversation about the book ensues. Often a voice from back in the fiction section chimes in about the book or about another by the same author, and soon an impromptu book discussion is in full swing.

I often descend the stairs with books recommended by the librarian or by another reader, sometimes a stranger to me.

And although I may have headed for the library with a particular book or author in mind, I'm often ambushed by a discovery on the shelves of recent acquisitions. And it's as likely as not that when I get the books home, I will encounter chocolate smudges on the pages of my next reading adventure.

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