Column, Looking Back

Library experiences from childhood to adulthood

By Mary Ellen Shaw

When I heard that Vermont State University plans to remove books from their library shelves and transition to digital books by July 1st it felt like a magic trick about to happen. Just say “Presto” and the paper books will suddenly disappear. Changes of that magnitude usually happen gradually. I have been a library user for over 70 years and if I have a choice between a paper book and a digital book, the paper book will always win out. Digital devices have many wonderful uses but books and newspapers were “born with pages” and yours truly loves to turn them.

My library experience began as a 6-year-old in 1950. Although I don’t remember the details my mother told me later in life that my love of reading began with Saturday morning trips to the Children’s Room of the Rutland Free Library. I explored the “world of books” there and selected a couple of books to bring home. From then on I always wanted to have a book to read and that has never changed.

As a 6-year-old I am sure I gravitated toward books with pictures but what types were popular with library patrons back in 1950? According to the City of Rutland Annual Report for that year 17,822 adult non-fiction books and 5,876 juvenile non-fiction books were loaned to readers. 1,784 books were purchased for the library in 1950. A Saturday morning program for young people resulted in a large increase in book circulation among that age group. Those paper pages were being turned “in a big way” back in the day!

I remember getting my first library card while I was in elementary school. It was a small blue square card that came in a little envelope. You presented it at the checkout desk. Each book had a paper sleeve attached to the back of the book. In the sleeve was a card that was put into a machine that printed the date on which the book had to be returned. The card was put back into the sleeve and your book was officially checked out. 

There was a fine for late returns but it was only pennies per day as I recall. I never had a book in my possession long enough to be late. They were returned every week so I could get more!

I remember wondering what would happen if I read ALL the books? I guess I didn’t realize that new books were always coming in. No worries!

As I got older library books became my reference source for research papers. A card catalog in the front part of the Rutland Free Library had index cards that were inside beautiful wooden cabinets. The Dewey Decimal numbers on the cards provided me with the reference numbers I needed to find the books. After writing down the numbers I headed to the second floor to look for them. The numbers were clearly displayed on the book jackets so it was an easy task.

Some reference books could not be removed from the library. That meant spending several hours in the reference room reading the books and writing notes as I got the information I needed. It also meant keeping quiet as talking was not allowed in the library.

Most elementary and high schools had their own libraries but the book selection was limited. Encyclopedias were essential as they were the “search engine” of yesteryear. 

In my college years the size of the Trinity College library seemed huge compared to my high school library. There was an excellent selection of books that were needed for the assignments we were given. We also had access to the University of Vermont library which was the largest library I had seen at that age.

Libraries have always served as places to study. There is something about being surrounded by books that sets the mood for an academic experience.

Perhaps it’s the younger generation’s turn to read and research in the manner that works for them. From comments I have seen many of them appreciate time away from their devices when they read. Numerous students want the books to remain on the shelves. As of Feb. 17 when this column was submitted Vermont State University remains committed to a digital library as of July 1. Stay tuned!

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