Let Your Spirit Rule at the Library

by Bill Peak

As someone who lived (too long) in the Washington area, I can assure you: the Eastern Shore is a friendly place. Turn on your blinker to signal a lane change on the Capital Beltway and the drivers around you will see it as a sign of weakness; no one will let you in. But turn on that same blinker on Route 50 and sooner or later someone will slow and a space will appear in the lane beside you. A similar thing happens in grocery stores. Walk up to the check-out with only one or two items in your cart and someone's bound to let you go first. People on the Eastern Shore are courteous to a fault.

Which probably explains why patrons are so deferential when they approach the library's Information Desk. Invariably they preface whatever question they want to ask with the phrase: “I hate to bother you, but ...” And you can tell from the look on their face they really mean it, they honestly fear they're interrupting someone engaged in something more important than what they're doing, say, trying to find a book that will teach them how to write a good résumé, or, maybe, one that will help them detect the early signs of autism.

I like to look such people in the eye and say, “You are the patron. You are the reason I am here. It is my job to help you.” Inevitably the person looks pleased when I say this, as if they think I'm being particularly polite, but of course I'm not just being polite. It really is my job. In French, the word “patron” means “boss.”

As I've mentioned before in this space, in addition to my work at the library, it has been one of the great joys in my life to write and design exhibits with my wife for museums. When you think about it, the two fields are not dissimilar. People visit a library to learn something and to be entertained; they visit a museum for the same reasons. But the two institutions are also different. A museum prides itself on its ability to keep the materials in its collection safe from the daily wear and tear of the real world (the only objects you can take home with you from a visit to the Smithsonian are those you buy in the museum shop). A library on the other hand not only wants you to take materials from its collection home and use them, it lends them to you free of charge.

But there is another more important difference. Though nowadays it is the goal of every museum to let the visitor arrive at his or her own conclusions, still each museum, however welcoming and respectful, must also (it is the very nature of “an exhibit”) be mildly directive: look at this, think about this; now look at that, think about that. But in a library, the patron is not only boss but king. Whatever he or she wants to think about, read about, listen to, watch, they can. The mind is free to be playful, to think and to dream. The possibilities inherent in any given trip to the Talbot County Free Library are precisely those our founding fathers had in mind when they imagined America. The spirit freed at the Talbot County Free Library is yours.