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Lincoln Library looks back at the big flood of 1998

LINCOLN — Fifteen years ago this month, on a stormy Saturday, the waters of the New Haven River rose dramatically and washed over the center of Lincoln village, including Burnham Hall. The lower levels, which housed the town library, were completely flooded.
“My sister called me at around 1 a.m. to tell me the fire department had been called out to sandbag the Hall,” librarian Linda Norton wrote in her journal that day, June 27, 1998. “It was flooded. We went down too late — the water was already to the base of the windows … water was over my boots, books, etc., were floating. It was awful … Shelves tipping over, books floating, water above waist. Water was causing havoc all over and we got home around 3 a.m., stripped and showered. I couldn’t sleep. Came out to the couch. Up at dawn and sat while the sun broke. Started making a list.
“Then it hit me and I cried.”
The Lincoln Library had always been a labor of love, dependent on one or two staff members and community volunteers to keep running. In the days following the flood, as Norton and current librarian Debi Gray (who was hired soon after as assistant director to assist the recovery effort) began the daunting task of rebuilding the library, local author and Lincoln resident Chris Bohjalian wrote an article about the flood for the Burlington Free Press.
“Losing the Library,” as the article was titled, was later picked up by the Boston Globe and Reader’s Digest, bringing the story of Lincoln’s library to regional, national and even global audiences.
As Norton and Gray began the daunting task of creating a library essentially from scratch, they were continuously motivated and inspired by the letters from around the world began pouring in — along with donations of money and books.
“Nobody had been through this before,” Norton said, “and it’s not as though there is a handbook. So it just had to become second nature to say, ‘OK, we need to take the cards out, we need to make an inventory.’ Sometimes we would get really down. But then, there would be another letter.”
A new library was planned, but that would take time. In the two years after the flood, a period when the library was operating from the upstairs of Burnham Hall, the support that came pouring in from around the world kept work-strapped volunteers going.
“There were all these work stations,” said Gray, recalling a typical scene at the interim library space. “People were typing spine labels, I was entering records, and people were doing all different things. And we were letting people check out books! In the middle of all that Linda hung a string, a clothesline, and we hung all of these letters up so people could read them.”
“One letter was from a lady in California,” Norton added. “She spoke about how important libraries had been to her throughout her life.”
“We had a lady write from New Zealand,” Gray remembered. “She just declared herself our sister library. She told us all about her library in the outback. She had a shower and a café! And she sent us books on New Zealand, which don’t really get checked out a lot, but I can’t get rid of them. Because every time I go by them every year, I remember how she just read our article and reached out.”
Each aspect of the new building’s design was carefully thought over: the community room; the warm lighting; the low, kid-friendly circulation desk; the interior glass pane window on the right after one enters the library, which immediately shows off the cozy reading room.
“We wanted people to feel that they had arrived,” Norton said, who retired in 2004 (Gray became the librarian).
Thirteen years after the construction of the new Lincoln Library building — constructed on higher ground on the opposite side of the road from the New Haven River — and 15 years after the flood, Norton and Gray are dreaming up ways to preserve the history of the library’s resurrection. They would like to host a gathering of those who were there during the flood to share memories, and are looking for ways to educate the community about the history.
In the meantime, Gray has taken to heart the message that all of those letters carried to Lincoln: libraries are important to people.
Though the library is already host to many community meetings and gatherings, Gray is expanding the ways that the library can serve the community. The library currently hosts home-school programs, craft classes, health and informational programs, nature and science programs for all ages, as well as monthly literary discussions and programs for senior citizens.
Bohjalian, whose article arguably started it all, praises the library’s important role in the Lincoln community.
“The Lincoln Library is so important to the community, especially for the seniors and the families with younger children,” he said. “There’s always something going on. And Debi Gray is a force of nature. She’s absolutely wonderful.”
Gray, though, has even more ideas up her sleeves. During storms, for example, Gray would like people to be able to come to the library for warmth, Internet access and comfort, as some already have during power outages. She is hoping to get a grant to fund a generator to accommodate that, and says that she is always on the lookout for ways that the library can give back to the community that rose to its aid.
“It’s just a lot of gratitude for the people who have brought us to where we are,” Gray said.
“It’s like that old adage,” Norton added. “‘It takes a village.’”

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