Faith Gong: Dispatch from the library desk

A friend asked me recently what I do to get a break from the demands of my everyday life: from the constant noise, mess, decision-making, and physical labor involved in parenting (and homeschooling) five children — with a husband and a bunch of animals thrown in, too.

In the past, I would have mentioned rising at dawn for daily quiet time to recharge my spirit, or how my husband sometimes watches our children for a chunk of hours on the weekend to give me a rest, or the occasional two-day retreat (the last of which happened three years ago).

But this time I had a quick response: “I go to work!”

That’s right: After a decade of unpaid labor raising the next generation and managing our family’s little world, I have rejoined the paid workforce as a library substitute. This is what happens when you’re good friends with your town’s Children’s Librarian, and you offer to help when she bemoans the current sub shortage. The next thing I knew, I was filling out tax forms and being trained to work behind the desk that I’ve stood in front of thousands of times.

The wonderful thing about being a sub is that I can work within a schedule of my choosing. My children don’t go off to school every weekday (well, they do, but I am the school). Working on weekdays during the school year would be near-impossible, but I’m more than ready to leave the house by Saturday. That’s why you’ll find me behind Ilsley Public Library’s youth desk every Saturday in May and June.

Since I work Saturdays, I was able to experience a small historic event: My first day of work was also the first day that Ilsley reopened fully to public browsing after more than a year. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the library staff worked heroically to continue connecting patrons to books by offering pick-up times for holds placed electronically. During the summer of 2020, when cases were low and restrictions eased temporarily, Ilsley’s first floor was open for limited browsing, including a small area of handpicked children’s books in the reference room. But it wasn’t until May 1, 2021, that the entire building opened up — albeit with masks required, and a time limit of 20 minutes per patron.

Witnessing children and families enter the youth floor in Ilsley’s basement for the first time in over a year was surprisingly moving. The children were joyful; some parents wept. Families that had moved to Vermont during the pandemic were thrilled to see the children’s room for the first time. A few people had forgotten how the library works: One little girl, seeing the enormous stack of books in her mother’s arms, wondered whether they could afford so many; a family at the self-checkout terminal attempted to scan the book barcodes instead of the library barcode, and wondered why it wasn’t working.

As for me, I absolutely love working in the library, particularly at the youth desk. Thirteen years of library-intensive parenting and six years of literature-rich homeschooling haven’t been in vain: It turns out that I know a lot about children’s books, and about the youth floor at Ilsley. It’s immensely rewarding to be able to direct patrons to the Ramona Quimby series (Juvenile Fiction, Cleary), remember who wrote the “Mother West Wind” stories (Thornton Burgess), suggest additional reading (“If you like books about trucks, you should check out Little Excavator by Anna Dewdney.”), and elicit a huge smile from the girl with whom I shared that — according to my daughters — a movie version of the Keeper of the Lost Cities books is in the works.

There’s something else about the library: It’s so quiet and orderly. The children’s room is a little more boisterous than the adult floors — it would take a lot to get an Ilsley Children’s Librarian to “Ssssh!” you — but compared to my house it’s an oasis of silence. And for a few hours each week, I get to be in a space where everything makes sense: Books and media are grouped by genre, then shelved alphabetically or according to the Dewey decimal system.

As much as I adore our library and look forward to my work there, all is not blissful perfection. Being back in Ilsley’s physical space has reminded me that, prior to the pandemic, a major issue facing our town was the library’s need for substantial renovations. Blueprints were prepared and budgets discussed — all of which, like so much else, was put on hold by the arrival of COVID-19.

Now that the pandemic seems to be on the wane, I hope that our town will turn its attention back to Ilsley Public Library. There are structural and space needs throughout the building, but one need only walk down to the children’s floor to find justification for a renovation.

Many wise people — among them Churchill, Mandela, Jefferson, Pope John Paul II, Dostoyevsky, and Gandhi — have voiced versions of the maxim that, “A society is judged by how it treats its weakest members.” Our town has consigned its children to a library basement plagued by poor ventilation, little light, and chronic mold issues. Youth librarians Tricia Allen and Kathryn Laliberte work valiantly to create a warm, welcoming space and innovative programs while they grapple with a lack of shelving space for youth materials.

Because excellent children’s books continue to be written, and because there’s barely enough space on the shelves for the current children’s collection, Tricia and Kathryn must make continuous, wrenching decisions to discard materials based on frequency of circulation: Only the most popular books get to stay. This doesn’t sound like a bad thing, but on numerous occasions our family has discovered that beloved books or series have disappeared from the Ilsley catalogue. In my few weeks at the youth desk I’ve had to inform patrons that the Ilsley children’s collection doesn’t include such classics as Thornton Burgess’s “Mother West Wind” nature stories, the “Dear America” historical fiction series, and Maud Hart Lovelace’s charming Betsy-Tacy books. These, along with many other books that we might want our rising generations to have access to, didn’t make the cut.

Starting June 1, Ilsley Library will be open Monday through Saturday, from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m., with unlimited browsing (masks and distancing still required). Many people have told me how books helped them endure the pandemic, and how much they missed having a fully operational library. As we begin rebuilding our community after the isolation of the past year, let’s include our library in the vision.

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit director. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, five children, assorted chickens and ducks, one feisty cat, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her “free time,” she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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