GLOVERSVILLE - Earlier this summer, a national "Celebration of the Book" was launched under the auspices of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. That institution is hosting an exhibition on "Books That Shaped America" as part of a series of programs that "explore the important and varied ways that books influence our lives."
The exhibit focuses on a list of books deemed influential to the development of the nation. It includes not just classic novels like "The Great Gatsby" and "To Kill a Mockingbird" but an eclectic mix of influential works in several genres - science fiction, poetry, politics and philosophy are represented - even "The Joy of Cooking."
These books and countless others continue to shape the lives of area residents who patronize their local libraries.
Barbara Madonna, director of the Gloversville Public Library, holds a copy of Judy Blume’s “Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing” on Thursday in the children’s room at the library. Madonna said the book was one of her favorites when she was a kid.
(The Leader-Herald/Bill Ackerbauer)
"I was happy to see we had more than half of them," Gloversville Public Library Director Barbara Madonna said this week, noting several of the titles on the Library of Congress list have been the subjects of book discussions at the library.
Madonna and her staff are serious about their mission to promote reading in the community, but they take a subtle approach.
"It's a tough balance," she said. "The definition of a good read is obviously subjective to the reader."
The Leader-Herald asked several local educators, librarians and booksellers to share their thoughts about the "Books that Shaped America"?- and their experiences as readers of great books. Here is a sampling of their responses:
"For my eighth birthday present, I opened a card and found - to my delight - a pink-ruled three-by-five library card with my name typed neatly at the top. This small piece of paper opened the door to a fascinating world that is forever unfolding."
- Debra Kolsrud,
" ... I've read 58 of the titles mentioned. And as I was counting, I realized that the list should be re-titled: "America Shaping Books." There was, for me, an overwhelming sense that none of the books could have, would have, been written in a place other than America."
- Michael V. Daly
instruction/public services librarian, FMCC
"Many of the books that shaped America were not, or are not, American. Right now we are being shaped by the Koran, whether we have read it or not."
- Dan Weaver
Owner of the Book Hound,
"'Charlotte's Web' was probably my first favorite book. I can remember my parents reading it to me when I was very young ... Fern, Wilbur, and Charlotte became familiar, dependable friends who were always there when I wanted them to be. It is because of them that I came to rely upon books and fictional characters as companions and that I was drawn to the library to search out others I could come to love, as well."
- Erica Wing,
director, Johnstown Public Library
For the respondents' full remarks, see http://www.leaderherald.com/page/blogs.detail/display/909/-Books-that-Shaped-America-.html
People often ask the staff for book suggestions, she said, and the response they get depends upon the individual they ask, because the staff's tastes and interests are as varied as the patrons'.
"We want to satisfy everybody's reading interest," she said. "Not everybody is interested in the classics."
Johnstown Public Library Director Erica Wing says the distinction between a public library and a school library is important: Nothing at the public library is necessarily assigned reading.
"People come here for enjoyment and for pleasure or for curiosity, to explore an interest," she said. "I was an American literature major in college, so I'm a big proponent of the great books ... but I also think it's important to remember that as a public library, first and foremost, we want people to read - period."
Both the Glove Cities' public libraries have significant collections of great books. The Gloversville library has a special shelf labeled "Required Reading," where patrons can find copies of "Moby-Dick" and "The Grapes of Wrath," among others.
Until recently, Wing said, classic works of literature were kept in the young-adult section at the Johnstown Public Library to make them accessible to high-school students. But she and the library staff recently returned the "great books" - including novels by Faulkner and Fitzgerald, for instance - into the general fiction section, where they are denoted by red dots on the books' spines.
She said the library will always maintain a core collection of classic works, but it's important to keep the offerings fresh, adding new titles and new media.
"I never want the library to get stagnant," she said. "I'm interested in helping people find books that they enjoy. I don't think it's our role to force great books down people's throats."
"We're circulating more books now than 10 years ago," Madonna said, but circulation of multimedia items such as audio books and DVDs is growing at an even faster rate.
E-books are a new but popular offering at both the Glove Cities' libraries. As members of the Mohawk Valley Library System, they offer the online Overdrive system, which allows patrons to borrow titles for use on electronic readers, such as the Kindle and the Nook.
Wing said while there always will be a demand for traditional ink-and-paper books, offering audio books and e-books helps the library help its patrons to expand their horizons.
The goal is "reading to encourage more reading, exploring to encourage more exploring," she said. "If that happens to be a great, classic book, all the better, but if not, that's just a personal preference."
Cultivating young readers
"We have a good, steady number of children who come in and read," Madonna said. The last time library staffers attended an open house at Park Terrace Elementary School, they weren't able to get any of the students to sign up for library cards.
"All the kids already had them," she said.
Many of Gloversville's elementary school children participate in a program that challenges them to read 25 books or more in a given school year, so by late June, some will feel too "burned out" to read voraciously over the summer.
Still, more than 350 children have participated in the 2012 summer reading program, said Sherry Gennett, head of children's services at the Gloversville Public Library.
The Johnstown summer reading program had almost 300 children this year, "a good number," Wing said.
Gennett said many children seem especially interested in non-fiction works this summer, and she's been able to "hook" some tentative teens readers with graphic novels.
The local libraries also try to cultivate more devoted young readers by hosting activities and programming that relate to the books on the shelves. And it doesn't hurt that the employees and volunteers are enthusiastic about their mission.
"The thing is, we love to read here," said Carol Morse, a clerk at the Gloversville Public Library.
Michael V. Daly, instruction and public services librarian at Fulton-Montgomery Community College, said the great books he read as a student continue to inspire him as he works with today's students.
"They're still shaping me," he said. "I don't think ... a reader's experience with a book ends with the last sentence. And a really good book does the job of letting every reader access it in an entirely different way. That was one of the pure joys of being an English major in college and now being a librarian at a college - every book has the potential to mean something different to everyone."
Contact Features Editor Bill Ackerbauer at email@example.com.