Way Beyond Books

After 10 years at the helm, Library director Lucinda Walker reflects on the place of the public library in Norwich.

The federal Institute of Museums and Library Services describes libraries as “community anchors.” The public/private joint venture that is the Norwich Public Library meets that definition perfectly.

Within a library, the librarian is the anchor. Lucinda Walker has been in charge of the Norwich Public Library for ten years, and she is as passionate as ever about the library and it’s role. “Libraries are about communities,” she concurs. “It’s about connecting people to ideas that benefit them as human beings and as members of a community. The library also connects people in a small town like ours with the greater world around them.”

Libraries are the great equalizers, she points out. You can be anybody. The library will always welcome you. Everyone gets the same service when they walk into a library, and they have the same opportunities to expand their knowledge – no matter who they are or how much money they have.

The Changing Role

More often than not, Lucinda explains, the community’s appreciation of “the library” may be more about the space itself than about what is contained within. It’s a place to reflect, research, relax, be inspired. It’s also a place to meet and attend events.

Library collections are increasingly becoming about more than merely printed matter on shelves: it’s now also DVDs, audiobooks, public computers and internet, as well as access to external resources in the virtual realm.

As always, the front desk staff is ready with recommendations and suggestions for books, but the librarians and volunteers are increasingly being asked to help with new technology: getting Kindles and Nooks, ipads and other gizmos loaded with e-books and other digital content.

So, it’s still about connecting people to ideas and resources, it’s just that they’re taking on different forms.

A Library Day

Even before the doors open, “customers” can be seen outside using the library’s free wireless internet to check e-mail before heading off for the day.

Local private schools use the library to supplement their own limited collections, and residents and staff from Valley Terrace visit regularly to stock up on music and movies.

Several times a week, there will be some variation on story time for the smaller kids. Except, those events aren’t just for the kids, explains Lucinda, they’re also social hours for busy parents, and one led to the formation of a dad’s group. After school, the library is the hub for group homework and socializing for older kids.

In addition to the casual out-of-town visitor, summertime brings AT hikers to the library to swap a book in the free book exchange, catch up on e-mail, and, laughs Lucinda, “asking if we can sell them just a little bit of toilet paper for the road.”

The Norwich Public Library is also one of the few remaining places where you can get paper versions of tax forms. (And this being Norwich, Lucinda has on occasion hand delivered tax forms to people in town — the kind of service way beyond that of a traditional librarian’s job description.)

Most people are loyal and committed to their community library and want it there just in case, but many don’t use it on a regular basis. “Some may not think they need the library,” says Lucinda, “but once they pay a visit they’ll realize that the library has something to offer almost everybody.” She gives the example of a first-time visitor, who was thrilled to discover that the library’s free online language program, Mango, enabled him to fulfill his dream of learning Italian.

Whether visitors come for the books, the internet, for a meeting or just to find a place to get away from things for a bit, the library is at heart of life in Norwich. And with Lucinda’s passion, it’s sure to remain that way for years to come, no matter how we as a community may change the way we seek out knowledge and resources.

(This story was first published in the Spring 2012 Norwich Times)