Monday, December 5, 2011

Reading Between the Lines

It’s been quite a few years since I bothered to put out what passes for a Christmas village display at our house. As it was, Wendtville would be a pretty strange place to live, combining as it does the interests of a librarian and an automotive guy.

The first two units were a miniature gas station and a used car dealership, the second building so small that it didn’t even come with a light bulb. As we acquired and parked various vehicles from the same set, my husband wondered whether little ceramic vandals would roam through the dark car lot causing random acts of damage to the inventory.

So I bought a set of battery powered streetlights which were a royal pain to operate and sucked batteries faster than two kids with straws in a seven ounce bottle of soda. We soon found a little police car to keep the vandals in check and only turned the lights on to impress guests.

The larger automotive service station was added a year or two later along with a wrecker truck, two ceramic mechanics and a couple more cars. A gas war immediately broke out between the first gas station and the larger one down the street; pretty soon both registered identically higher prices.

There were also three libraries – the main building and two more branches accumulated as gifts from different sets – as well as a bookmobile. Little ceramic children carried their books past the gas pumps and squatted under the streetlights next to the used cars to read.

That might have defined the village limits except friends gifted us with a bank (to issue loans for the used cars), a city hall (to pay the librarians), a bookstore, a car wash and a fire station. The 1950’s style diner and classic cars parked all round a musical ice skating rink arrived next, thus making it possible for the little people to read, drive around in clean cars, eat and get gas. We placed the fire station next to the diner in case they served four-alarm chili.

Surrounded as we are these days by economic and political complexities, there’s a mighty temptation to attempt casting real life in a similarly ideal mold. Alas, we cannot pick and choose the component parts of our own village as we might assemble one manufactured by Department 56.

The people and opportunities in our community, however widely that is defined, are not so easily or permanently arranged. Nonetheless, what we acknowledge as well as what we ignore around us in real life sometimes amounts to the same sort of artificial village construction.

Other than in times of crisis, a sense of community is most often visible during the holiday season. Gifts are gathered for needy children and donations pour in for various charities. Efforts are made to reach out and pull into the circle those among us whose lives don’t usually connect. At this time of the year we sometimes realize our own actions can have an impact on others in ways that we weren’t otherwise aware.

It’s that sense of community connectivity and interdependence that has always appealed to me when watching the traditional holiday film “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Average citizen George Bailey wishes he had never been born and, with the temporary granting of his request, sees the town of Bedford Falls as it would have been without his influence. Each of us has the potential to make that same profound difference every day in a positive or negative sense.

A library, with its collection of diverse opinions and unlimited potential to access the writings of all humankind, represents a community of knowledge. In safety and privacy, library customers can freely choose to construct a personal information village by either selecting only that with which they are most comfortable or by gradually acquiring structures of more divergent thought.

My colleague David Polodna, former director of the Winding Rivers Library System, once ruminated on the way in which a community values its library alongside other municipal services.

“Libraries are as ‘essential’ as police and fire departments,” Polodna wrote in 2003. Even though a library isn’t thought of as an emergency agency, he continued, “Libraries work in proactive ways to inform, educate, and assist people to avoid the traumas in the first place. We offer programs and materials on fire safety, personal and home safety, and child rearing skills and responsibilities. In addition, we offer constructive recreational opportunities that can keep people away from the temptation of other activities that can get them into trouble.” There are many times when librarians provide answers in personal situations that could genuinely qualify as an information emergency.

At this year’s annual budget meeting in the town where I live, our chairman ably fielded a question from a taxpayer who complained he was being forced to support a library he never used. “You pay for the fire department and ambulance though you hope you don’t have to call them to your door. And you may not drive on all the town roads,” the questioner was told. “But the library is a positive thing for our community and nothing is stopping you from taking advantage of all it has to offer and getting more than your money’s worth.”


Hopefully our citizens will remember the public library as one place in our village where they can find free illumination. May the glow of learning continue to shine from library windows throughout the holidays and upcoming year!

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