ASSOCIATES (2012, March, v. 18, no. 3)


Working in an Old Library

Allison Sloan
Senior Library Associate
Reading Public Library
Reading, Massachusetts

Everyday working in a library is wonderful. The books, the people, the surprises, every day – and that there are still surprises is wonderful in itself. It’s just that it would be better if the surprises came from new patrons, new programs, new and improved systems… not old ceilings that fall, old heating systems that don’t heat, or cool, and old roofs that leak!

Our public library was originally built in 1897 as a neighborhood elementary school. The building served the town well for 84 years, and due to newer modern schools, changes in student populations and all the reasons a building is no longer desirable as a school, it was decided to close the doors of the school permanently.

But that’s not the end of the story, because just at that time, in 1981 (coincidentally the year my first child was born), the town library was crunched into some back rooms and stairways at the old Town Hall. The Children’s Room books were “shelved” on the stair treads in piles reaching taller than many children. The staff used old dumbwaiters to send books from the delivery area to the Circulation desk upstairs – up dark winding stairs. Staff and patrons alike were desperate for a new space that allowed for expansion of the collection, for community meetings and for a safe, welcoming, light-filled environment, with bookshelves.

One of my former neighbors bragged to me that he was on the 1981 Library Building Committee, and though it was a tough sell, they convinced the townspeople that the old school could be renovated into a modern library, for under $1million. Even 32 years ago that was a good deal.

So the old elementary school was remade into a “modern” library. Patrons still delight in checking their books out at what was once the Principal’s Office, or reading a board book to their grandchild in what was then a math class. The modernization of the library was completed in 1984. The double staircases are big, wide wooden steps with carpeting and thick banisters. There are natural brick walls, archways through to the Reference Room, and cozy alcoves just right for a comfy stuffed reading chair.

And the staff loves this building too, but with a great big grain of salt, as the saying goes. Today, 28 years later, even the updated air conditioning system is 15 years “new” and rarely gets repaired and started before mid-July. By that time the temperature in the 2nd floor Children’s Room is at least 85 degrees (F) and only two of the windows are open because the others are painted shut. The roof leaks, as do the walls and windows in the basement stacks, so flooding is a regular event. One time the elevator shaft flooded, but at least there was no damage to the M authors in the Fiction Section, which seem to get more than their fair share of moisture. We can’t rearrange the collection because there are no blueprints to hint at which floors are weight bearing. It seems electrical outlets were in much less demand in 1981 than they are now in 2012. Thank goodness for surge protectors and extension cords. I have a nice one that sits on top of my file cabinet to reach both the computer on one side and the copier on the other.

Well, as I said at the start of this article, a library is a wonderful place to work, and ours is no exception. We have plans and budgets for another remodel of this old library. It’s going to cost more than $1million, but it will still be a good deal because our patrons love this building as much in 2012 as they did in 1897 when the neighborhood children crossed the threshold of their new school.