Way Beyond Books

After 10 years at the helm, Library director Lucinda Walker reflects on the place of the public library in Norwich.

The federal Institute of Museums and Library Services describes libraries as “community anchors.” The public/private joint venture that is the Norwich Public Library meets that definition perfectly.

Within a library, the librarian is the anchor. Lucinda Walker has been in charge of the Norwich Public Library for ten years, and she is as passionate as ever about the library and it’s role. “Libraries are about communities,” she concurs. “It’s about connecting people to ideas that benefit them as human beings and as members of a community. The library also connects people in a small town like ours with the greater world around them.”

Libraries are the great equalizers, she points out. You can be anybody. The library will always welcome you. Everyone gets the same service when they walk into a library, and they have the same opportunities to expand their knowledge – no matter who they are or how much money they have.

The Changing Role

More often than not, Lucinda explains, the community’s appreciation of “the library” may be more about the space itself than about what is contained within. It’s a place to reflect, research, relax, be inspired. It’s also a place to meet and attend events.

Library collections are increasingly becoming about more than merely printed matter on shelves: it’s now also DVDs, audiobooks, public computers and internet, as well as access to external resources in the virtual realm.

As always, the front desk staff is ready with recommendations and suggestions for books, but the librarians and volunteers are increasingly being asked to help with new technology: getting Kindles and Nooks, ipads and other gizmos loaded with e-books and other digital content.

So, it’s still about connecting people to ideas and resources, it’s just that they’re taking on different forms.

A Library Day

Even before the doors open, “customers” can be seen outside using the library’s free wireless internet to check e-mail before heading off for the day.

Local private schools use the library to supplement their own limited collections, and residents and staff from Valley Terrace visit regularly to stock up on music and movies.

Several times a week, there will be some variation on story time for the smaller kids. Except, those events aren’t just for the kids, explains Lucinda, they’re also social hours for busy parents, and one led to the formation of a dad’s group. After school, the library is the hub for group homework and socializing for older kids.

In addition to the casual out-of-town visitor, summertime brings AT hikers to the library to swap a book in the free book exchange, catch up on e-mail, and, laughs Lucinda, “asking if we can sell them just a little bit of toilet paper for the road.”

The Norwich Public Library is also one of the few remaining places where you can get paper versions of tax forms. (And this being Norwich, Lucinda has on occasion hand delivered tax forms to people in town — the kind of service way beyond that of a traditional librarian’s job description.)

Most people are loyal and committed to their community library and want it there just in case, but many don’t use it on a regular basis. “Some may not think they need the library,” says Lucinda, “but once they pay a visit they’ll realize that the library has something to offer almost everybody.” She gives the example of a first-time visitor, who was thrilled to discover that the library’s free online language program, Mango, enabled him to fulfill his dream of learning Italian.

Whether visitors come for the books, the internet, for a meeting or just to find a place to get away from things for a bit, the library is at heart of life in Norwich. And with Lucinda’s passion, it’s sure to remain that way for years to come, no matter how we as a community may change the way we seek out knowledge and resources.

(This story was first published in the Spring 2012 Norwich Times)

System To Caring Teenager: Drop Dead, Freak.

25_russell_brand-pg-horizontalIt’s a sad and pitiful sight when weak-kneed but stubborn bureaucrats and power hoarders come up against resourceful individuals with the courage and conviction to circumvent or ignore their oh, so sacred rules. I’m thinking Rosa Parks on the bus, or the kids at at the lunch counter in Greensboro; George Carlin and the Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television, and any number of similar examples. 

Sometimes it’s defiance merely for the sake of defiance — like the wonderful “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” t-shirt case in Alaska some years back. I appreciate that little stunt — nothing like a little tongue-in-cheek rebellion to put authority in its place. But often, it’s quite substantial — like in the case of Jessica Ahlquist of Rhode Island, who has bravely decided to stand up and cry foul over her school’s unconstitutional prayer poster.

The latest example is J. T. Gaskins, a 17-year old cancer survivor from Michigan, who decided to support the relative of a friend undergoing cancer treatment by growing his hair long to donate to Locks of Love. A pretty ballsy move for a boy of that age. Unfortunately, he attends Madison Academy, a school apparently in the grips of rigor mortis, obsessed with “important” rules like “Hoodies must have no pockets. If a Madison hoodie has a pocket on its front, it must be removed prior to wearing it to school” and where Jean Day is to be considered some sort of institutionalized anarchistic “special” treat, although the student handbook is quick to point out: “The privilege of participation in Jean Day by an individual student, or group of students will be determined by the teacher, or administration.” Uptight, much? 

Oh, and then there’s the rule that’s causing Gaskin’s grief: “Hair must be […] off the collar, off the ears and out of the eyes.” Indeed; get thee behind me, Beatles freak. 

And while the bureaucrats cling to their rule book (“We’re not changing the rules in the middle of the school year,” declared the president of the board) the rest of the world can merely marvel: here’s a boy showing genuine empathy for a fellow human being, and the initiative to do something about it (without hurting anyone else), evidently able to appreciate that there is more to life than simply toeing the line — and “the system” immediately gets busy trying to slap the little rebel back into place. So sad and counterproductive.

Sure, the rule says “no long hair.” So, suck it, hippie boy. But there is more to life than rules, and sometimes rules need to be bent, dismissed or revoked, if they turn out to serve no other purpose but to elevate those who make the rules above those who must abide by the rules and put the latter in their place at the mercy of the former. For that reason alone, I hope Gaskins prevails and not only gets to donate his hair to Locks of Love, but also encourages parents and other students to push back against a school board that seems to be getting completely carried away with their endless rules and regulations, to the detriment of basic compassion,  community values, and common sense. 

The Pink Stink Gets Worse

pink_pistolIt’s long been known that the Susan G. Komen Foundation and its ubiquitous Pink Ribbon campaign is equal parts scam and snake oil marketing. There’s an entire book written on the subject. SGK’s actual donations to The Cure are questionable, and the fraction of the jacked-up price of various ribbon-branded doodads that actually ends up supporting the cause is negligible. There have also been numerous instances of products being licensed to carry the enticing little ribbon that have either been directly or indirectly cancer-causing, or entirely inappropriate (a pink ribbon handgun, anybody?). Every year, we’re assaulted with more pink crap in every isle of the supermarket — random junk, feverishly branded by greedy marketeers, eager to cash in on the guilt and charity felt by frazzled shoppers. Add to that all the runs and walks and skips and jumps “for The Cure” that all come with hefty price tags and donation requirements. 

The reason it’s all so damn Pink and all Komen all the time is because SGK are of the mind that they have a monopoly on the term “The Cure.” And so, much of the money that’s left over after they’ve paid their executives $500K+ each, they elect to spend chasing down other non-profits trying to raise money for breast cancer research and telling them in the shape of lawsuits that they can’t use the term “The Cure.” Really? So, is this about “The Cure” at all, or more about protecting SGK’s uber-branded but essentially vapid little cash cow of a pink ribbon?

In 2009, blogger Jane Hamsher highlighted Hadassah Lieberman’s numerous conflicts of interest working for SGK while at the same time lobbying for some of the biggest pharmaceuticals and being married to Joe — the complete schmuck who has built much of his career on making life miserable for women. Hamsher’s plea for SGK to be honest and let Hadassah go was ignored. 

And now SGK has decided to let a political agenda get in the way of providing much needed preventitive breast cancer screenings for low income women. SGK has announced (not publicly, mind you, just a pink slip to the people on the front line of “The Cure”) that it is ending its funding of breast cancer services offered by Planned Parenthood clinics. This move might have a lot to do with the fact that SGK last year appointed Karen Handel as Senior Vice President for Public Policy. She’s a failed Georgia politician who ran for Governor on a ticket of defunding Planned Parenthood, and she was one of Sarah Palin’s BFFs — not exactly someone you’d want to have involved in *anything* to do with women’s health. 

When October rolls around, and the whole world is once more awash in opportunistic pink crap and endless pleas to give for “The Cure,” it would be worth while remembering that you’d be paying dearly for the product it’s on, dearly for the ribbon, and dearly for the Foundation and for the Foundation’s exceptionally well-paid leadership — and worth remembering, too, that the people managing whatever is left of your donation have now declared that, actually, the provision of breast cancer screening to the women who most need it is not really a priority.

And hopefully you’ll then decide to give to a different cause, or find some other way to support “The Cure.”