I recently picked up a copy of Main Street, Sinclair Lewis's 1920 novel of life in the small Midwestern town of Gopher Prairie. What resonated with me, aside from the many personalities still recognizable 90 years hence, were the pungent comments about urban libraries. Even then, apparently, the diversity of urban patrons and their proclivities invited reproofs from commentators. When Miss Villets, the Gopher Prairie librarian disdains library methods in large cities-St. Paul, Minnesota specifically-because they afforded shelter to "tramps and all sorts of dirty persons practically sleeping in the reading-rooms" there is a tone familiar to current patrons and staff. Mercifully, some of her more belligerent comments, those about turning libraries into nursing homes and kindergartens for example, have given way to a more expansive and inclusive vision of what public(s) constitute the modern library's constituency. Very likely Miss Villets would approach apoplexy at the diversity of programs and active public engagement encouraged by the Otis Library and embedded in its mission statement. The ability of libraries in general, and this library in particular to evolve and adapt, to provide essential services and embrace new community roles gives me hope for the future.
Libraries are often labeled as quality of life enhancements, especially when the subject involves money and support. There is an unspoken assumption in that label, that perhaps things that promote quality of life are somehow less essential, less worthy of serious consideration than infrastructure, safety, and transportation. Were that so, in a harsh financial climate the reductions to the library, as articulated in the 2010-2011 city budget might appear tactically prudent. Strategically they are arguably imprudent. Every community has a unique base of assets upon which to build its future, to attract new residents and businesses and maintain the fealty of those currently situated. The Otis Library is part of Norwich’s asset base, along with schools, parks, social service organizations, and hospitals. The library is a visible and formal part of the community fabric. Reductions at the levels recommended-$100,000- for the forthcoming fiscal year both diminish the library and the community it serves. Diminished as well are the incentives for future community stability and growth.