Rangeley Public Library Director Janet Wilson among the stacks

The Rangeley Public Library is a humble one, a handsome building set in the bucolic backcountry of Maine. It is a monument to civility and engagement, and central to our community. A steady stream of characters, some more eccentric than others, come and go weekly, Tuesday through Saturday, congenially conversing with each other, and the convivial librarians, about all manner of topics. Librarians Janet Wilson, Erykah Condon, and Brittany Wetherill, guardians of all that is good, along with a cadre of volunteers, administer to the many needs of their patrons, answering questions, providing book (and restaurant) recommendations, hosting book clubs, and with a dedicated focus on children. There are much worse fates than fostering imaginations through reading, though there is a well-worn path to the DVD section, too.

My Grandfather Langan introduced me to the South Orange Public Library when I was six years old, and I was given a library card. When I neglected to return the very first book I had taken out, something about how Christopher Columbus was a saintly explorer, I became acquainted with the library police. They called Grandpa and he followed up with me, explaining the rules more thoroughly regarding my relationship with the library. “You are borrowing the book for free and have to return it by a certain time. If you don’t then you have to pay a fine. In this case, since it’s been over two years, you owe the library $10.25.” I had to take it out of my First Holy Communion money. So much for free. The next time I went to confession I told Father Grogan that I had stolen a book. He told me to return it. I said I had, and I had to pay $10.25. “Good boy. Say four Hail Marys for penance and go and sin no more.” Fat chance, I wanted to say. “I’ll see you next week with a whole new batch.”

School libraries display student projects to bolster pride, or, as was my case, to instill shame. I once made a diorama in third grade the morning it was due: in a sneaker box I drew a gray blob of what was supposed to be a hibernating fox. For snow, I glued some cotton balls all over the place. It looked like a doctor’s trash can. My friends pointed and laughed at it when our class was visiting the library. A fellow classmate, Mary Francis Barnett, the overachiever, said she wanted a good grade so she asked her father not to help. She had made a full scale model of an Anasazi cliff dwelling, real adobe, piñon ladders, creosote, miniature people and all. It stood right next to my fiasco. Mary Francis created an example of excellence. Timmy Straub created an example of what looked like a blind Neanderthal’s cave painting.

I was taught the Dewey Decimal System, I was told, to make it easier to find books. I would have found them faster had I just written them myself. My grandmother’s Irish recipe catalog was bigger than my Catholic grammar school’s book catalog, which had a biography section just for Catholic Saints. The Bible was in non-fiction.

The only time I ever went into the library at my all-boys Catholic high school, Seton Hall Prep, was freshman year for study hall. Miss Armenti was the monitor during that period. She was a Spanish teacher, in her 20s, and she wore short skirts. There was never an empty seat to be found. Suddenly, every boy couldn’t study enough. I graduated four years later and attended Seton Hall University. I’d go to Walsh Library when I wanted to appear studious but was actually busy procrastinating. It had so many nooks and crannies to hide in that I called it the English Muffin. This was where I spent the accumulated time that added up to a full fifth year in college.

I always advise students heading to college to make three very important stops as soon as they arrive on campus: 1) the bursar, to make sure they paid; 2) the writing lab, because we can all use extra help with the process; and 3) the library, where all the answers are hiding in plain sight. I also taught my own kids to procure library cards whenever moving into new towns. Pretty sure that hasn’t happened, but I bet they know where the best pizza is.

The most iconic library entrance in the world is the New York Public Library’s (NYPL). The stone lions on either side of the steps have been in more movies than MGM’s roaring lion. The film The Day After Tomorrow, set in the NYPL, fulfilled every Nazi’s dream when Jake Gyllenahall started burning books (to help keep him from freezing to death). Historians mourn the loss of the ancient Library of Alexandria as one of civilization’s greatest disasters, joined, millenia later, by the Kardashians and Facebook. Ray Bradbury wrote the dystopian Fahrenheit 451 as a cautionary tale regarding the slippery slope into censorship, where books were burned by firemen. Today, state governments are doing that by creating laws intended to hamstring literature that runs afoul of the State’s nationalist narrative of American exceptionalism. Banning books isn’t back. It never went away.

If you haven’t been to your local library lately, there’s no time like the present. Go feed your brain with ideas and make of them what you will; and if you’re good, and read a whole book, maybe take out a DVD for dessert.

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