Family Matters, January 2022

Loving our libraries

By Claire Mullen

I’m only kidding when I occasionally tell my husband that I’d like my ashes to be sprinkled on the lawn of Cumberland County’s Headquarters Public Library on Maiden Lane. But as a lifelong bookworm and daughter of a children’s librarian, I am most certainly not joking when I say that I was probably happiest as a kid when Mom piled my three siblings and me into the family van and set off for a summer afternoon at the library.

I imagine that for my mother, this outing was just as much about out-of-the-house, air-conditioned, free entertainment for four young children on a seemingly endless summer day. But for us kids, the library, particularly the downtown location, was a veritable wonderland. We’d ceremoniously walk single file down the brick wall that runs from the parking lot to the library’s entrance and have to be reminded several times not to run. We also had to be reminded not to talk above our “library voices” as we excitedly made our way up the long staircase to the children’s department. There, we were free to roam the aisles and accumulate our very own stacks of books to take home on whatever subjects tickled our fancies.

And then, when summer was over and we kids had all gone back to our respective schools, we’d frequently come home to find each of our beds covered in library books, spread out and neatly arranged by Mom, who had selected them with each of her children’s particular interests in mind.

I have vivid memories centered on those childhood books. I vividly remember hiding in my closet with a flashlight and a copy of “The Boxcar Children” to pretend that I was Jessie Alden in my very own train car as I read. Taking “The Witch of Blackbird Pond” out under the cherry tree in our backyard and devouring the chapters until it started to get cold and dark, and Mom called me in for supper. Crying myself to sleep after finishing “Charlotte’s Web.”

I remember when the day came that I was finally old enough to have my own library card, and how I painstakingly wrote my name in cursive on the card’s signature line, like a real grown-up would do. Mom explained that with this card came the serious responsibility of caring for each book that it allowed me to borrow. It would be up to me to keep inventory of the books I brought home, to remember to use a bookmark instead of dog-earring the pages, to keep bedside table glasses of water off the top of paperbacks. And on occasion, to pay out of my piggy bank for loaned books that seemed to have been swallowed up forever by my untidy room. When I think about it, I really learned some of my earliest lessons about responsibility and respect for things that did not belong to me from being the keeper of my own library card and books. I passed my love of books and my favorite hometown library down to my two children. I proudly took photos of each of them in their strollers in front of the tall brick building when they made their very first library trips. My eyes welled with tears when we were finally able to return in-person after a long closure due to COVID. Call me crazy, but I just love that wonderful old library that even smells the same as it did when I was a kid.

On my most recent trip, I dropped an armload of hopelessly overdue books into the return slot, and sheepishly approached the front desk to settle my late fee with a kind librarian. I recognized her as the same one who’d helped me handle a previous transaction of paying for a hardback “Star Wars” book that my preschooler toted around and handled until the pages completely separated from their binding. To my great surprise, I was met with a posted notice informing patrons that as of August 2021, the Cumberland County Public Libraries would no longer charge fees for overdue items or lost or damaged materials and would also forgive any outstanding balances. I went home worrying that this new policy would bring with it a general lack of accountability for the vast collection of books and audiovisual materials that belong to our community. I found the “Library Goes Late Fee Free” news release posted to the Cumberland County Public Library’s website. I learned that, as Cumberland County Headquarters Library; public library Director Faith Phillips explained to the Board of Commissioners who voted in favor of her “fee-free” recommendation, library systems that have gone late-fee free have experienced a notable return of patrons and have increased the number of community members whom the library is able to serve, and even seen the return of many long-overdue items.

I sure hope that the same will hold true for Cumberland County. I want to see the children of many generations to come love and respect our libraries and their books in the same way that I did as a proud, young CCPL cardholder. Forgiveness and a chance for a fresh start is a good thing. Heck, our libraries’ generous new policy might even inspire me to absolve the debt of a certain little boy who still owes me 25 bucks for a loved-to-death “Star Wars” picture book.

Visit www.cumberlandcountync.gov/ departments/library-group/library for more information on our wonderful library system. Claire Mullen can be reached at clairejlmullen@ gmail.com.