Carole Owens: Libraries, librarians are local treasures



We have fine libraries in Berkshire County. I like to pay tribute to them, so here I go again.

Libraries are authors' favorite places, and librarians are authors' best friends, because without libraries most books could not be written.

Authors are dependent on earlier works, primary source materials, and reference books. A good library collects them, and creates a system to share their collection.

Not enough can be said about the Athenaeum in Pittsfield. Its collection is stellar. For example, its collection of Melville family memorabilia is the largest in the world, and its Melville research collection is the third largest. The director of the local history room, Kathy Reilly, is relentless in finding grants to preserve and protect the collection for future generations, but what she thinks equally important is sharing with this generation.

"This is a public library and our first job is to serve the public." Reilly says.

Her staff is always ready to help the next person through the door and that means knowing the collection, knowing where to find what is requested, and even searching for material not requested but relevant and helpful.

Preserving and sharing may seem like ordinary library functions, but in the world of libraries, there is tension between them. It takes an intelligent staff and a sound collections policy to both preserve and share. Some fall short and never ask: why have a collection in a public library if the public doesn't know -- and can't use -- what the library has? Even though I was never a Williams College student, when I visit the Sawyer Library or Chapin Library of Rare Books, the librarians are helpful and even enthusiastic. They find what I ask for, and also find relevant materials I did not know they had.

Adams and North Adams libraries have valuable nuggets of Berkshire history in their collections and take pride in sharing. The same must be said of the Williamstown House of History. The staff there will work to find the smallest link in the story of our county.

Lenox library under the direction of Denis Lesieur was a joyful place in which to work. The collection, especially the 19th century documents and images, is just plain fun. Recently I helped an aspiring author with research, and under the new director, the staff was wonderful, spending over an hour searching and showing.

The greatest finding aid is knowledgeable staff. Georgia Massucco, former director of the Lee Library, knew her collection and could put her finger on anything wanted. That skill takes time and dedication, but on a recent visit, the new librarian was equal to the task.

Great Barrington has a good collection of early town records readily available. Sheffield Historical Society is nothing short of a treasure trove with knowing curators.

Requests may be for a single book and the exchange take a minute of a librarian's time, or an author may be following a trail that takes hours.

At last, a string of facts becomes a story and a column is written; a string of stories becomes a book, and a wider audience learns about our history.

The stories of Berkshire past are also the stories of our libraries' collections: publishing the stories simultaneously broadcasts the wealth of the collections, and everyone -- author, library and the public -- benefits.

Solid research is a partnership between author and librarian. To all Berkshire librarians who have helped me tell the story of Berkshire County history, thank you.

Carole Owens is a Berkshire writer and historian.


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