Blazing new trails

spearsAfter a lunch of mystery meat wedged between mashed potatoes and jiggly gelatin, I had filed into the seventh grade classroom to endure the second half of the first day of school. Mrs. Jones greeted each student with a book, a clever way to induce a period of tranquility as we settled at our desks to read. That was my introduction to the wonderful world of recreational reading inspired by writers such as Horatio Alger, Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson.

Following that year of adventure, promotion to the eighth grade was somewhat disappointing. The “library” consisted of a double shelf of encyclopedias and copies of National Geographic magazines—interesting but not inspiring.

Eventually, I was directed to the public library in downtown Alexander City, Ala., in the basement of City Hall, which opened only two afternoons a week and Saturday mornings. By juggling my time between a paper route and library visits, I renewed my relationship with literature. But it was several weeks before I realized that people were checking out books to read at home. (I was a slow learner, to say the least.) Thereafter, my world expanded beyond imagination.

Librarians are blazing new trails of service to their patrons, even developing cultural centers of their respective towns and cities.

The town’s librarian was a nice low-profile lady whose name I cannot recall because my friends referred to her by a special covert nickname—”Miss Hush”—due to her habit of bisecting her thin smile with an index finger and hissing “shhh.”

The 1940s was an era of library “mausoleums” dedicated to preserving the ghosts of literary giants in ambient silence. Only the most serious readers dared to enter.

Since the publication of my novel Grave Dancin’ three years ago, I have addressed readers in libraries all over Alabama and discovered an amazing transformation has been in progress. Librarians are blazing new trails of service to their patrons, even developing cultural centers of their respective towns and cities.

Leading this transition are innovative directors like Dr. Shirley Spears, who uncovered the rich history of the textile and marble industries in Sylacauga, Ala., and developed programs to honor and preserve those who contributed to that city’s development.

Recently in the tiny hamlet of Chatom, Ala., Librarian Jessica Ross exposed the roots of Washington County’s contributions to indigenous music by sponsoring the Smithsonian’s exhibit “New Harmonies” in the local library. By combining the talents of local-folk musicians with the exhibit, Ross converted the Washington County Public Library into a lively cultural center for one of the oldest communities in Alabama.

In Alexander City, librarian Judy Tidwell is developing special collections of archival photos, publications and records of the two textile industries that laid the foundations of that town’s economic growth during the 20th century. Although machinery in those expansive brick buildings no longer hums prosperity’s persistent tune, the public library will preserve the spirit and the history of Russell and Avondale Mills for posterity.

Although the rapidly expanding city of Hoover has a relatively short history, this young city boasts one of the most progressive libraries in the nation. Award-winning librarian Linda Andrews has led her staff to create programs and services that literally lure its citizens through its automatic doors.

Now this is not to suggest that librarians have gone wild and stripped books from their shelves. Rather, these innovations are attracting more and more readers. So it’s time to bid a hearty farewell to Miss Hush and welcome Ms. And Mr. Entrepreneur, professionals who are transforming public libraries into vibrant cultural centers by dusting off the vestiges of local history, exposing its dignity, color and humanity in order to pay tribute to the people whose sweat and toil have contributed to community development.

As soon as I finish writing this piece, I plan to drive to the local library, peruse my e-mail, order a cup of cappuccino, read the New York Times and check out Warren St. John’s Outcasts United, which I plan to read prior to his address at the annual AHF luncheon on September 14.

(Pictured: Dr. Shirley Spears of the BB Comer Memorial Library in Sylacauga spoke at the 2009 Cultural Leadership Summit.)

Written by: Bob W.