Tales from the library: A building that’s about more than books

By Callie Koehne, Content Specialist at Burlington Public Library

Six months ago if you’d asked me what libraries were good for, I would have passionately described my love of books. I would have told you about how they’ve saved my life, made my life, and that I don’t think there’s anything more important. then I would have amended my declaration of love to include my husband and children, of course.

Books are a wonderful foundation to build your life upon. At best, they’re a window into the greatest minds and hearts of all time, teachers and comforters who come to you in an almost mystical way from the other side of the veil.

Even the most trashy of paperbacks can somehow lift your spirits when they’re down. Books are magic, so, of course, I’ve always found value in any place where they exist en masse. It stands to reason then, that nothing has ever been holier to me than a library.

So, six months ago after a personal tragedy, I sprinted to the only place I felt safe and found myself at the Burlington Public Library surrounded by rows of books and bookish people. You can imagine my surprise when after only a few weeks there I started to notice that books weren’t even close to the best thing about the place, and that I was not the only one who turned to the library in my time of need.

I hadn’t considered that there was much more to libraries than books, and maybe the occasional story hour and art class. I thought of them as hallowed ground, humming with silence and the occasional scratch of turning pages. What I found was a living, breathing hive of activity that props its doors open and holds out its hand to everyone.

During my first month or so I related to the occasional visitor who came in to make a copy then looked around confused, and with a shaking head made a declaration that they “didn’t think people went to libraries anymore.” With Amazon making books cheaper than ever and Google in every pocket acting as personal reference librarian, people are shocked when they find the public library parking lot full, and the inside bustling. Librarians stifle their laughter when someone muses that maybe libraries are becoming obsolete. They know the truth.

The public library is the most valuable community space of them all.

The fact that it was busy wasn’t the most shocking thing to me. I thought that maybe I just hadn’t paid attention before. I was in awe though, as the true wonder of the library dawned on me – that it may be the only truly public space left where everyone has a place, where nothing is required, and true help is given.

With multiple programs a day, spanning all ages and interests, it’s no surprise that the building buzzes with life. There are moms and dads and grandparents with small children, and retirees looking for ways to fill up their days. After school, students come in to hang out in the teen and tween section and play games. There are some who may not see many other people throughout the day, who come in to talk with familiar faces behind the counter who will ask them how they are and really care about the answer.

People come in to make copies so much that there’s a joke that we might need to rebrand.

Despite popular belief that everyone has access to the internet these days, we still offer computers and the internet, because not everyone has them. Even when they do have access at home, many come into the library to get help with their school reports, or to have someone proofread their resume because they know that the people behind the desk won’t hesitate to help.

At the end of my first week, I asked half joking, if everything we’d done that day was in the job description, one of the librarians smiled and said, “Everything is in the job description,” and then I got the chance to see her dedication to the community in action as she proceeded to help a patron find a government document they needed, and immediately turn around and help another talk to the power company to have their utilities turned back on. She is not the exception. What I’ve found is that the magic of the public library exists because of the people who work and volunteer there, not just because of the portals to other worlds that live on shelves. the space they’ve created is holy, and necessary, and vital to the survival of any community.

Koehne, C. (2024, February 29). Tales from the library: A building that’s about more than books. Burlington Standard-Press, p. 6