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Jack Zaleski, Published November 19 2011

Zaleski: Library of my youth was a grand place

The mini-flap over unpaid book fines at the Fargo Public Library stirred memories of my crimes at the New Britain public library in my Connecticut hometown. I owe ‘em a lot of money. I still have a book or two I checked out when I was in high school, and that’s a long time ago. I suspect a statute of limitations protects me from prosecution, but guilt is its own form of punishment.

The New Britain library, which was grandiously called “The New Britain Institute,” was one of those classic granite buildings that grace so many old New England cities. It had an imposing entrance at the top of a magnificent stone stairway – had a Greek temple feel to it. The copper roof was weathered and green, the stone façade stained by runoff from the tarnished roof.

The front desk was huge – an ornate barrier, down from which librarians glared at us youngish patrons. “Card, please,” they would say. Yes, those were the days when a stiff paper card gave us membership in and granted us access to this great repository of books, periodicals, photographs and printed materials of all kinds. The card catalogue was a bank of burnished wood cabinets filled with hundreds of small drawers – each of them stuffed with the names, classifications and locations in the stacks of the books sought.

To the right, the stacks were piled several floors high. It was joy to get lost in the musty smell of thousands of old – and new – books. The hours I spent there, sitting on the translucent walkways, enhanced a love of books and reading that had been a-growing since I was very young.

To the left, a vast study room housed dozens of long polished wood and slate library tables, complete with green-shade reading lamps and hardwood, straight back chairs. Soft lights, also with green glass shades, hung from the beamed vaulted ceiling. The room was a cathedral dedicated to reading and learning. Librarians walked the room hushing and shushing patrons, often me and my student friends who were working on an assignment from Miss Regina Dunlay’s history class. She assigned reading from the wonderful hard-cover American Heritage magazine and tested us on it. We might not have absorbed all the material, but we learned how to use the library.

Libraries have changed with technology, for the better some would say. Maybe. But the atmosphere in my old imposing library helped me grow up. It demanded reverence for books and for the knowledge they held. The old-fashioned method of using books and accessing knowledge was work. And because it was work, success was so much more satisfying than tapping an image on an electronic screen.

So, I’m indebted to the grand library of my youth. I learned to learn there. The least I can do is return those overdue books …

Contact Editorial Page Editor Jack Zaleski at jzaleski@forumcomm.com or 701-241-5521.