Giving Thanks for the Public Library

The two children’s librarians at the Stoneham Public Library of the mid to late 1960s appeared ancient to me at 5, 6, 7 years old, of another generation in their dull-colored printed shirtwaist dresses, heavy stockings and sensible shoes. Their hair styles, too, hearkened back to the previous decade: one’s thinning head of fog gray hair hugged her scalp in pin curls, while the other had battleship gray hair tamed into finger waves.

One librarian – Finger Waves – smiled only occasionally, Pin Curls never. Neither woman made small talk and both enforced the library’s quiet policy with either a glower or a clipped “Sh!” The only sounds allowed were the incidental ones, chair legs scraping a hardwood floor or the whir of fan blades. I can remember taking my stack of books and my library card, that rectangle of heavy paper with its number-embossed metal strip, to the desk and feeling slightly afraid of the women, Pin Curls and Finger Waves, of their sternness. Maybe they were nothing like stern outside of work. Maybe they had private lives filled with joy, circles of friends, and weekend car rides under sunny skies, but they certainly had strict public personas, all business for their days at the desk.

Oddly, feeling slightly fearful of approaching the desk and those two tight-lipped librarians made me more fond of the library rather than less. Check out felt to me like a running of the gantlet of sorts, a test that – if endured – rewarded me with beloved books and made reading them that much sweeter.

To this day I adore libraries.

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In the intervening years, though, this hushed and solemn free public library of my youth has been transformed. The mission is the same – providing citizens with access to information – but the delivery is vastly different. Paper books share space with DVDs and audiobooks and e-books. (I doubt my austere librarians of old could have imagined computerized check out, let alone the internet, e-readers, and digital files.) Talking happens all the time now in libraries – toddler story times, author nights, public service presentations – and the shushing is rare. Likely all of these qualities are imprinting right now on some other impressionable child, and just as likely she will grow up to adore libraries, and all the promise they hold, too.

On December 31, my six-year tenure as one of the trustees of our local public library ends. No doubt I chose to campaign for election first in 2007 because of my earliest experiences in Stoneham. More than that, though, was a desire to make sure the important mission of the public library remains an important mission for communities. As a trustee I know how large a portion of our city’s population holds a library card – and believe me, it’s large; many people here love and depend on our library – but I also have an inkling of how many people never set foot in the building or peruse the catalog on line. Often this small but vocal group of people will wonder what is the purpose of a library these days when so much content exists on the internet or in a bricks and mortar bookstore. They wonder too why they must pay a portion of their tax bill to fund a municipal service they think they don’t need.

In answer, I suggest a visit. Libraries have changed, are changing even as I write this. Today’s library isn’t about stern gatekeepers guarding printed books and clucking their tongues over late fines. For proof, look no further than our library’s broad mission and vision statements. The institution “strives to provide the best possible resources and services to fulfill the educational, cultural, personal development, social, and recreational needs of the community… (to) be the center of the community’s intellectual, social, and educational life, drawing together the finest resources, providing lifelong enrichment and activities, and working cooperatively with town government, cultural institutions, and social service organizations to enrich the lives of the people….”

Intellectual, cultural, social enrichment. Books, movies, television shows, music, lectures, story hours, teen events, public school support, museum passes, internet access, job search assistance, research help, local history archives, community gathering space. All this for about $93 a year, or the price of four hardcover books. Surely we provide something you enjoy.

Or maybe you don’t read books; I acknowledge that. You have cable, buy music through iTunes, have no need to look for a job, and no interest in meeting downtown to gather your information because it is all right at home, at your fingertips. But even you have a reason to care about and invest in your public library.

Because make no mistake, whether you use the library or not, it is yours. And mine. And our neighbors’ library too. Everyone is welcome to enter. The library doesn’t care if you have internet access at home or can’t afford it and need a public computer; the library pays no attention to whether you have buckets of money or none at all. It’s simply there to be used, free to all at any time, for any reason. If you must justify the cost to yourself, think of the $93 as a yearly membership fee to a club of generosity and community spirit. Or think of it as a small cost that guarantees that the right to access remains available to you, your children, friends, and neighbors. Better still, consider both of these types of investment and then come in for a visit anyway. You might realize you are getting your money’s worth on all sorts of fronts.

For the past six years I have worked with eight other savvy trustees, a creative and dedicated director, a passionate and compassionate library staff, and a mayor of both vision and practicality to make the library’s mission work for members of the community. It is an ongoing job, one that will continue after my tenure is done, but I can say with conviction that we’ve done a good job. Our library is small, our building is old and problematic, but our efforts and results of the efforts have been boundless and far reaching. I have loved holding this position of trustee, and I will miss it, the camaraderie and hard work of it.

Without question, though, I’ll be there on the front lines as patron-advocate supporting the library, its mission, and its new Board, doing anything I can to make sure the work of the past remains a solid foundation on which to build the library’s future. There’s that young person, after all, the one bringing her stack of books and card with the bar code on it to the circulation desk right now. She’s falling in love with her library, remember, forming lifelong memories around her passion for books and knowledge. She sees the promise of the public library. We must continue to honor our promise to her.

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Tis the season to give thanks for those things we hold dear, like public libraries, and also to make things with pumpkin. This may be the year that pumpkin-laden food and drink jumped the shark, but I don’t care. Pumpkin says festive and fall, and I’m all over that.

In the past I have given you recipes for pumpkin gnocchi and pumpkin macaroni and cheese. Maybe one of these two will grace a Thanksgiving table this year. Or you could try this one that follows, a recipe for Pumpkin Challah. Because I added pumpkin puree to my standard challah recipe, I was able to decrease the amount of oil in the original recipe. This is another thing to be thankful for – a healthier loaf of bread. To make your own pumpkin puree, as I did, first check out this method for oven roasting the pumpkin and pureeing it. It is just fine to use canned pumpkin if you’d rather.

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Pumpkin Challah with Cardamom

makes 2 braided, coiled or traditional pan loaves

(adapted from Bon Appetit, Almost Grandmother’s Challah, March 1995)

  • 1/2 cup plus 2/3 cup warm water (105°F to 115°F)
  • 2 tablespoons dry yeast
  • 1 tablespoons plus 3/4 cup sugar
  • 5 large eggs
  • 1 cup pumpkin puree
  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • ½ tsp. cardamom
  • 7 1/2 cups (about) all-purpose flour
  • 1 large egg yolk mixed with 1 tablespoon water to make an egg wash

Combine 1/2 cup warm water, yeast and 1 tablespoon sugar in large glass measuring cup and stir until yeast dissolves. Let yeast mixture stand at room temperature until foamy, about 10 minutes.

In large bowl of heavy-duty mixer fitted with whisk attachment, beat 5 eggs until blended. Add pumpkin puree, oil, salt and 3/4 cup sugar and beat until pale yellow and slightly thickened, about 4 minutes. Beat in 2/3 cup warm water. Add yeast mixture and beat until blended. Remove whisk and fit mixer with dough hook. Add enough flour 1 cup at a time to form smooth dough, beating well after each addition. Beat on medium speed until smooth and elastic, about 5 minutes, adding flour by tablespoonfuls if sticky. Knead an additional 2 minutes.

Lightly oil large bowl. Add dough, turning to coat with oil. Cover with plastic wrap that has been lightly brushed with oil or sprayed with non-stick spray. Let dough rise in warm draft-free area until doubled in volume, about 1 hour, maybe more.

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Gently deflate dough. Cover with plastic and let rise another 30 minutes.

Grease 2 large baking sheets. Turn out dough onto lightly floured surface. Divide dough into 2 equal portions.

To form braided loaves: Divide each portion into 3 equal pieces. Roll each piece into 9-inch-long rope. Braid 3 ropes together; pinch ends together to seal. Repeat with remaining dough pieces, forming 2 braids. Place each braid on a parchment lined baking sheet. Cover lightly with oiled or sprayed plastic wrap. Let rise in warm area until almost doubled, about 30 minutes.

To form coils: Roll the 2 divided portions of dough into 18-inch ropes. Hold one end of one rope as the center point and coil the rope outward in concentric circles. Repeat with the second rope. Place each on a parchment lined baking sheet. Cover lightly with oiled or sprayed plastic wrap. Let rise in warm area until almost doubled, about 30 minutes.

To form traditional pan loaves: Grease or spray with non-stick spray 2 9×5” loaf pans. Roll out each portion of dough into a 12×8” rectangle. Starting with the narrow end closest to you, roll the dough into a cylinder and place each loaf into the prepared pans, seam side down. Cover lightly with oiled or sprayed plastic wrap. Let rise in warm area until almost doubled, about 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 400°F. Whisk yolk with 1 tablespoon water to blend. Brush dough with egg mixture. Bake 10 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 350°F. Bake until bread is golden brown and sounds hollow when tapped on bottom, about 35 minutes. Loaves in the pans may take a bit longer. Because of the dough’s high sugar-egg content, watch the loaves carefully for burning. You may tent loaves, braids or coils loosely with foil during the last 10 minutes of baking if the tops brown too quickly.

Once baked, transfer loaves from baking sheets or loaf pans to cooling racks and cool completely.

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© Jane A. Ward