Ruth Bass: Libraries thrive in their 21st century niches

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RICHMOND >> The Jones Library in Amherst was my first. Over and over, I took out two books in particular: "And To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street" and "The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins." Years later, reading one Dr. Suess book after another to our kids, I learned that my favorite books as a preschooler were his first two, published in 1937 and 1938.

"Mulberry Street" was turned down by the first 20 or so publishers who read it — and one assumes they kicked themselves around the block for decades afterward. But in the realm of the rejected, Dr. Seuss was in grand company, including Zane Grey, Mario Puzo, Agatha Christie, Judy Blume and innumerable other authors who had plenty of trouble perking the interest of publishers when they started out.

Books were a staple under the Christmas tree at our house. But somehow, despite all the times I signed out those two books at the Jones Library, I never owned them. Years later, Suess's books were all over our house, and each of us could recite dozens of lines from them, as well as learning quite a few lessons without knowing it.

From Amherst, we moved to Brockton and long before we were teenagers, we'd walk up to the corner by ourselves, get on the bus and ride several miles to the big, downtown library, built in 1913 with substantial help from an Andrew Carnegie donation. We tugged home an armload of books (this was long before everyone came equipped with a backpack or a tote bag), but I don't remember titles or authors. I just know I began a habit that continues today: When I found a writer I liked, I read only that person until I used up the shelf and was enchanted to find, when I married, that my husband had always done that, too.

The public library is apparently an American invention. In any case, it's free unless you forget to take your borrowed book back or you lose it. Actually, fortunately for me, our town stamps a due date in the book and then doesn't charge a penny when it comes back late. Some librarians are less patient. When I was single and living in Pittsfield, a Berkshire County sheriff served notice on my roommate for a long overdue book or books. Jail, however, was not involved — just the book, please, and a huge fine.

Several years ago, when we tried to build a special place for the Richmond Free Public Library, a number of residents argued that libraries were outdated by electronics and asserted that we needed nothing more than our small-ish rented space. Statistics, including those from the Pew Research Center, prove their thinking misguided, but our creative library staff continues to cope with its limited space. It's true that electronics have changed libraries, but it's an enhancement, not a subtraction. They are vibrant places where Americans can access computers, delve into genealogy, get e-books to read on their tablets, borrow CDs and DVDs, gather for book clubs, read newspapers and magazines, learn English as a second language, borrow a museum pass. In 2012, libraries had 1.5 billion in person visits.

Despite the proliferation of audio books, tablets and e-readers, most Americans still read print books. And statistics show that people from all levels of income use the free facilities of public libraries. Right now in Berkshire County, libraries are getting a lot of press because for some reason, a number of librarians have retired or left and have been replaced. In North Adams, they're in a kerfuffle about the library budget, which the trustees would like to increase, not fund minimally. More power to them.

These places are true bastions of democracy where no employee will tell an outsider what you read — it's a private matter — and where rich, poor and middle can enjoy it all. No admission charge.

Ruth Bass is author of two historical novels. Her web site is www.ruthbass.com.


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