Diving for Pearls at the Library

by Bill Peak

It's the new books that attract the most attention at the library. Patrons hover around the shelves holding our most recent purchases like bees around fresh blossom. Which shouldn't surprise us. We are, after all, a culture that celebrates novelty: what's new is good, and what's old, by corollary, must be bad, purposeless, obsolete. But now and then, while everyone else is fighting over whatever the publishing industry has proclaimed the latest and greatest, I like to wander through the library's main collection, see what I can find hidden away back there.

I don't know when librarians first began calling the shelves in their collections “stacks,” but the name is appropriate as the things really are quite tall. I always feel a bit of a thrill walking down one of the long deep aisles that separate those stacks, a colorful coral of books rising to the ceiling on either side of me. Carrying the metaphor a little further, like a pearl diver of old, I move slowly along, studying the shelves around me closely, for I know that the plainest of exteriors often conceals the rarest of gems.

Last week, for instance, while wandering through Fiction, I pulled a small book from a lower shelf and found myself looking at a copy of “A Passage to India” printed in 1924—the same year E. M. Forster wrote it. In 1925 the Talbot County Free Library opened its doors for the first time. The book I was holding in my hand—its cloth cover faded to an earthy brown—may well have graced the Talbot County Free Library's first brave little collection.

That initial collection was housed in the Avon Building, before being moved in 1940 to the South Wing of the Courthouse. When the Easton branch finally acquired a building of its own in 1977, “A Passage to India” would have made the short trip, along with the rest of our growing collection, to 100 West Dover Street. If all goes according to plan, it will journey again with us next month to our temporary quarters in the old Black and Decker plant (28712 Glebe Road), and then return with us to West Dover when improvements to the building at that address have been completed. And so it is that Forster's “A Passage to India“”—or at least our copy of it—will have made, over time, several very real “passages” of its own.

But the book is, of course, no stranger to travel. Think of all the homes it has visited in our community since 1925, think of all the minds it has entertained with its story of the collision of cultures and the vanity of man. Better still, imagine how many more such trips it will make, how much more enlightenment it as yet promises ... to those curious enough to search it out among the stacks of the Talbot County Free Library.