April 10, 2010
“Some people have said they think that
libraries are on their way out,
but I do not see that at all.”
—Dale Smith, Supervisor of Children’s Services
Morse Institute Library, Natick, MA
It’s National Library Week April 11-17. While I’m of the belief that libraries should be celebrated throughout the year, here’s a week for those of us with well-worn library cards, and even those who haven’t used their card in a while, to offer thanks and join in efforts to build awareness of all that libraries and librarians provide our communities. In that spirit, I’m joining author Shelli Johannes-Wells for the Bloggers Love Libraries celebration, including interviews with librarians from all over the country, as well as other great posts and contributions in support of these wonderful treasures.
I live in Natick, Massachusetts, which has a fantastic library in the heart of downtown—the Morse Institute Library (read here about its history)—as well as another gem, the Bacon Free Library on the Charles River in South Natick. Both are worth visiting for what they uniquely offer. Both are part of the Minuteman Library Network, through which a single library card enables you access to resources at numerous public and college libraries in the state’s Metrowest region. And like many libraries, both also face challenges tied to budgets and funding. (More on the Save the Bacon effort here.)
I personally think every community should do everything in its power to keep its libraries up and running strong. But rather than rant here, I’m going to stick to the celebration and invite you through the front doors of the Morse Institute, have you turn left and head down the stairs (or you can take the elevator down). There, you’ll come across a shining example of a resource that has paid dividends well beyond dollars to multiple generations in our community: the library’s vibrant, bustling children’s department. With its well-organized stacks of books and book displays, puppet castle, aquarium, computers, train table, artwork—and not to be forgotten—amazing staff and popular programs, you will discover that this is a hub of all good things for kids, from the diaper set to middle schoolers, as well as anyone older looking for great books and materials. Exploring a subject new to you? Remember, kids’ books can be a great place to start! The library also has a young-adult room upstairs, on the second floor, plus a new homework center next to it.
I can’t count how many times I’ve been in the children’s area, but it was extra nice the other day to sit down and speak with Dale Smith, the supervisor of children’s services. Dale is a gentle dynamo who has been at the Natick library for nearly 28 years. She and her team are kind, knowledgeable, and there to help!
Dale, what made you decide to become a children’s librarian?
When I went to library school, I knew I wanted to work in a public library. At that point I had not really decided on the children’s field, but took courses to go in any direction. I always wanted to work with the public. You get all different kinds of people coming in for all different kinds of reasons, and that really appealed to me. So when I graduated from library school, I applied for a job in upstate New York, a position as a children’s librarian. And now, I can’t imagine doing anything else!
When you think of the library, what immediately comes to mind?
Well, you always hope that it is welcoming, that the community sees that it is a center for them, that we are a resource. For me specifically, in this department, I’m always hoping that we are going to somehow make that connection with parents, who are then going to instill a love of learning and love of reading to the children, and I’ve seen so many families over the years, and it really does make a difference when parents bring their kids in early, or start reading to them.
And you see that?
I do. I absolutely do. And the library becomes someplace that they’re familiar with: “I know how this place works. I know the ropes. I know what to do. I know those people.” And you can see that it gives them a little confidence that I just think has to be a plus as they go off to school … Some people have said [when visiting] “What am I going to do with a young one?” Well, don’t forget the poetry, don’t forget the nursery rhymes. It’s hearing your voice. It’s so important. That’s how you learn your language skills, and it really makes a difference.
In addition to Natick, where do your visitors come from?
Wellesley, Framingham, Wayland, Ashland, Dover [all part of the Minuteman Network], Sherborn … I think there’s a population who might be driving by, and knowing that your card is good wherever you go in Minuteman makes a big difference. They feel like, “Oh yeah, I can go in here.” And then you drop your books off at your home library, so that is a huge plus.
What are some of your favorite library moments?
We’ve had so many great programs. I can remember we had a celebration when the children’s library turned 100 [in 2001], with cake, crafts, and readings from books from each decade.
In the 1870s, when Mary Ann Morse left money in her will for the establishment of the library, there was no money for a children’s library. It was 1901, the townspeople looked around and said, “We’ve got children. We should do something for them in the library.” They wrote it up in the town report, and established the Young People’s Library at the Morse Institute, which is why our paperbacks have the YPL sticker, we’ve always had this name. And they were so proud of themselves. And it was one bookshelf!!
[And] I can remember so many little things … I used to do the story hours with Ms. Champion until I got this position, but I fill in if needed. I can remember this day I was filling in with her … and this little boy came in late. Well, he’d had a horrible morning, they were running late … and I said, “Come on over here, you can sit by me.” And he was sobbing. He didn’t know me from Adam, but he threw himself into my arms and curled up on my lap and just turned around and just watched Linda read the story. I was so moved that he trusted me. It was like, “I finally made it here,” whatever little drama he had gone through, it was something traumatic, but then he was fine, and we did our songs and stories, but I always thought that was such a sweet moment that he was so trusting of being at story hour.
What’s the “craziest” thing that’s happened at the library? [A good question from my 10-year-old!]
Off the top of my head, I’m thinking of all the things I’ve had to clean up. It keeps you humble!
Adds Dale’s coworker, Ty Borghi:
Some kid once tried to order a hamburger!
Other funny moments?
One of the days I was filling in for Linda, I was getting the kids ready for story hour and I had Fred the Frog on my hand, and this little kid comes up to me, had to be three or four years old, and he looked me up and down and looks at Fred, then says, “Do you know what you’re doing?” He wasn’t being fresh, but he had real concerns. I had to reassure him that things were going to be fine.
What would you like people to know about the library?
There’s something for everyone here. For children, we have programs that go from babies up to almost middle school, we’ve got materials for all those ages. Everybody is welcome. We’re going to do everything we can to find the answer to your particular question. None of us here or upstairs is afraid of saying, “Gee I don’t know.” Nobody feels that they’ve got to have all the answers … We’ll try to find out. Part of the fun is solving the puzzle.
How does the young-adult program fit in; is it part of children’s services?
We used to have a young adult librarian. She left to go to a different position in the school system, and when she left, the town froze the position. She had made such strides. We had been finding that once kids left [the children’s area], we were losing them, but she was pulling them back in. And now we feel like we don’t have enough for them … The finance committee has put the position on their official “wish list” … There is the young adult room [with books, computers, and other materials]. And there’s a new homework center. Someone from the Mass. Board of Library Commissioners helped with ideas for converting the room to a homework center. Computers and reference works are coming.
Where do all these books come from anyway?
Our team orders from review sources or from actually seeing the books ourselves. … I feel that I have to stake my reputation on anything that’s in here. It might not be age-appropriate for your child but it is appropriate for this room, given the range, and I have to stand behind that, and I feel I can do that. So the team divides up the review sources and submits orders. We try to do that monthly.
We really try to keep the new books fresh, and we pull them after six months and they go into the regular collection.
We’re just now weeding the fiction collection, which has been a huge project we started in January. I divided it all up and, of course, my section is the one that’s not done yet (laughs) because I go over what everyone’s getting rid of or wants to replace, and that’s quite involved. With children’s books, you have to have some classics, and even though it might be ratty or holding on by a thread, what do you do if you can’t replace it? Do you go paperback? Do we try to mend it?
What are some of your favorite books? [Another good kid question]
Oh my goodness, I’d have to think about that. I have lots of favorites … There are lots of picture books that deal with animals that are poignant, like Go Home! The True Story of James the Cat, Let’s Get a Pup!, and Smudge. For the fall, a favorite for classes is The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything. A holiday favorite of mine is the Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey. For middle-grade readers, there’s one that people might not know by Ben Mikaelson, called Petey, about a boy who had cerebral palsy but was misdiagnosed and spent many years in an institution.
Are there certain writers now who are grabbing your attention?
There are some writers you’re always going to buy. In picture books, you’re always going to get a Kevin Henkes, Tomie dePaola, so many people like that. Of course you have to be on the lookout for new series, something that may have gotten great reviews. Something you may have had for a few months, all of a sudden everybody wants to read it. The Mysterious Benedict Society, the first book, we’ve had that forever. All of a sudden, it’s taken off and people are waiting for the third one. Diary of a Wimpy Kid did that, too—we can’t keep them on the shelves. Harry Potter was like to begin with, when the first one came out. Even now, I doubt we have all seven volumes on the shelf. [About the Harry Potter phenomenon:] It certainly gave a boost to reading. We had people—if I had put a book that size in their hands, they would have been running for the door—but couldn’t wait, didn’t matter how big it was. I think it shows they don’t have to be afraid of a book that is that big, with umpteen chapters and only a tiny little picture at the beginning of each.
What are your thoughts on other things happening in the big picture of libraries?
Things are changing so much with technology. It’s great to see the kids so comfortable with the computers. We try always to make sure they know about the databases, what’s available, because those are things you’re not going to pick up with a Google search, and they have a wealth of information. It’s so exciting when we can connect the kids with the right books or show them a whole group of books that they can use for whatever.
Doing reference work, my first reaction is not to go the computer, but go to the books for kids. Down here [in the children's area], it’s still faster, and it’s good to be able to put the information in their hands, and then we can talk about references like encyclopedias, and we can talk about websites and how you can tell if it’s a good web site, and that kind of thing. … We’ve gone from having books on cassette to the little playaways that you can pop in your pocket, and some different things like that … different ways to present the material, but not to forget about books. I don’t believe anybody’s going to curl up with their Kindle, as great as they are.
Your favorite libraries or other book places?
I always enjoy going to visit other libraries. But I actually sometimes come in to work early, and I’ll often sit upstairs, find a little nook. Sometimes I might want to catch up on correspondence or I might want to just sit and read. I don’t get up there very often, and I enjoy this facility, too. And I’ve enjoyed seeing all the new libraries, like Needham and Wellesley. It’s very fortunate to live in this are.
Other thoughts you’d like to share?
Some people have said they think that libraries are on their way out, but I do not see that at all. Our usage is way up. We’re providing things … Some people say that everybody has a computer. Well, they don’t. Our computers upstairs are booked solid. People are here learning English … and job-hunting workshops … some are bringing their laptops and setting up makeshift offices, having no where else to go. It really drives that point, what would they do if we weren’t here? We try to offer a variety of programs for adults as well, and I think we’re probably going to have to cut back on some of that because we’re facing big budget cuts for next year. It will probably affect our hours. Do you close a whole day? Do you close at night? Do you close part of the weekend? It’s not just a nice thing to have—people are really relying on us.
[In Natick, the final budget will be known after Town Meeting.]
You never want to pit department against department. You don’t want to say we’re more important than another department. No. We don’t ever feel that way. But for the community, you need to have this for so many reasons.
We’ll get through it and come out on the other side!
Thank you, Mrs. Smith. And thank you, Natick libraries!!
And let your voice be heard: Save our libraries!!!