Burlington County Times, November 26, 2001

There are certain mundane events which we realize only in retrospect were actually defining moments in our lives. I can still remember one of those moments very clearly. I was eight years old and in third grade. I was in the kitchen when my mother handed me a book. I can still see the cover: the little girl with the messy hair and the too short skirt, using a chair as a ladder so she could climb onto a dressing table and write her name in large, hot pink lipstick letters onto a mirror – “ELOISE.”

I fell in love with Eloise. Even more importantly, I fell in love with books. And with libraries. Because Kay Thompson’s “Eloise” was my very first library book.

Our house was a short walk from the Mattapan branch of the Boston Public Library. I spent a lot of time in that library, even though the head librarian would berate me for trying to sneak into the adult room. But all the good books were in there. I didn’t like the selection in the Young Adult Room; I wanted to read Edna Ferber, not “Cherry Ames, Student Nurse.” My mother would write a note for the librarian, giving me permission to go into the Adult Room and take out books for her. But they were really for me.

I remember when a new librarian was hired. Her hair was brown, not white. She smiled, not scowled. She let me take out any book I wanted, even if I didn’t have a note from my mother.

Later, in high school, my friends and I would meet every afternoon at the library. We’d learned that our parents wouldn’t object to our going to the library. They would, however, object vociferously if we’d said we were going to Woolworth’s for cokes and fries. The library became our hang out. And on Sundays, my father would shlep me into downtown Boston so I could do my homework at the main branch.

All through college and graduate school, the library remained one of my favorite places. I found that I couldn’t concentrate at home – whether home was a dorm room or a Center City high rise studio apartment or a suburban tract house. I could do my best work only when ensconced in a library carrel.

So you can imagine how thrilled I was to be appointed by Evesham Township to serve on the library committee. And after all the years I’ve been on the committee, I am still amazed at the changes in libraries in the 43 years since my first library card.

There are no more rooms segregated for children, for young adults, for adults. Instead, libraries are large, open spaces with sections for different reading levels and interests. The librarians don’t walk around with their fingers to their lips; they seldom frown, and never at a patron or, worse, a child. No longer do we have to sit in hard, uncomfortable chairs while reading a magazine. Instead, we can relax with a cappuccino in an easy chair. Or we can enjoy the fish tank. Or look at the display cases. Or surf the internet. And the kids can play computer games – fun even if educational – while their parents browse the latest best sellers. Videos, music tapes, and soft cover books are now available.

You still have to go to the library to pick up your books, but you can put them on hold on line (http://www.burlco.lib.nj.us). And you can renew them on line. And if you forget to renew them, the overdue fine is still only ten cents a day. And soon, Evesham residents will be able to drop off their returns at the Marlton Shop Rite.

The elementary school on Walk Hill Street I attended for grades three through six was closed many years ago. But the Mattapan library is still a short walk away on Hazelton Street. It even has its own web site. It offers preschool programs, ESL conversation groups, book discussions, jazz concerts. It even has a homework assistance program. The only homework assistance we got was that we were allowed to use the encyclopedia in the Adult Room if we went to Latin School.

And the Evesham Library has changed, too. It’s moved from its cramped quarters next to K-Mart into a modern, spacious, welcoming space on the first floor of the Evesham Municipal Building. If you haven’t been there for a while, go. Or go to any of the members of the Burlington County Library System.

One thing hasn’t changed: it’s still a great hang out.


1 Comment

  1. Jenny Milchman said,

    Oh, and I hope that never changes–libraries will *always* be great hang outs, not to mention great places to hide, wile away the hours of an afternoon, bring our kids…

    Thanks for the memories, and the perspective.

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