A Luminous Halo

"Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end." --Virginia Woolf

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Location: Springfield, Massachusetts, United States

Smith ’69, Purdue ’75. Anarchist; agnostic. Writer. Steward of the Pascal Emory house, an 1871 Second-Empire Victorian; of Sylvie, a 1974 Mercedes-Benz 450SL; and of Taz, a purebred Cockador who sets the standard for her breed. Happy enough for the present in Massachusetts, but always looking East.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

CLAC If You Love Books

Springfield Central LibraryTonight was the second meeting of the Central Library Advisory Committee, of which I'm a member. I've been trying to ease up on the volunteer commitments; I have to quit acting like a suburban matron with nothing else to do. In fact, I'm a struggling single mother with two kids still at home and little visible means of support. As such, I need to be limiting myself to things I get paid to do, at least until further notice. But I couldn't say no to the library. Sheila McElwaine, the Library Commissioner, called me herself and asked me to sit on the committee. Probably because I was president of the Armoury-Quadrangle Civic Association--but my term was up last week. So now I'm just a concerned citizen, balancing my genuine concern for the state of affairs of the neighborhood with my fear of being named to too many sub-committees.

We've been talking about our hopes and dreams for the library. Most members seem to want the library to become a real community meeting place. Somewhere kids can go to do homework, or where neighborhood associations can hold meetings, for example. We've been talking about advertising the free movie series more heavily, giving tours of the building, setting up a coffee bar.

None of those is a bad thing. But when my turn came to speak, I didn't speak about community. For me, a library is all about the books....or whatever form the information comes in these days. When I walk into a library, I expect to be able to find whatever I'm looking for. On the shelf, in the stacks, on microfiche, online, through inter-library loan, whatever.

When I lived in Wilbraham, I used the town library as an extension of my own bookshelves. When I wanted to make a fabulous dessert for a party, I'd go straight to the stacks and grab Maida Heatter's chocolate cookbook. Every spring, I would borrow Josephine Nuese's The Country Garden. I didn't have to look up the call numbers; I knew exactly where each book was shelved.

One day I went looking for The Country Garden, and it wasn't there. I couldn't ask the librarian if it was checked out, because I couldn't even remember the title. Just the look of the spine and the spot it should've been in. I sat in a chair and concentrated until the name came to me. Then I looked it up in the card catalog to get the call number for the librarian. But it wasn't in the catalog.

It dawned on me then that the library had discarded the book. And that was just the beginning. One by one, the books I had been taking out year after year began to disappear. The old-school cake decorating book with the recipe for "stabilized" whipped cream. The Polish-American cookbook with the cheesecake identical to the one Chmura's Bakery used to make. The librarian told me that they were weeding out books according to frequency of withdrawals, to make room for the flood of new acquisitions.

That method of culling the herd disturbs me greatly. Currently I'm reading Arabian Sands, by Wilfred Thesiger, published in 1959. Since I'm a book cataloger, I look at every book I pick up with a professional eye as to its value. This particular library book is a first edition, with the large folded map still tucked into a pastedown on the inside back cover. No dust jacket, and library ownership marks, which are drawbacks, but still a valuable copy. Not too popular these days, however. I wonder if the days of this masterpiece of travel literature are numbered.

Anna Brandenburg, the reference librarian, assures me that Springfield has a more intelligent way of earmarking discards. And that many items taken off the shelves are stored in the basement stacks. That's the good news. The bad news is, Sheila McElwaine thinks I'd be the perfect person to head up the Collections Sub-committee.

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