From kids to elderly, everyone finds a place at the library

By Mia Karr, Harrisonburg HS, Harrisonburg, Va.

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The old lady in the green jacket isn’t supposed to be in the children’s department. She sits at a table next to a shelf of elementary-level nonfiction holding a yellow backpack and smiling. Even though her bushy hair is snow white, it’s clear she’s no one’s grandmother.

The other visitors don’t seem to notice. There’s a young mother reading a picture book in a chirpy tone as her baby cries and stops and cries again. There’s a boy in a sports jersey, probably around seven, who darts in and out of the shelves of books while his little brother runs across the room holding a stuffed animal and their mother tells him to come back in an exasperated tone. There’s a tired-looking lady in pink who sits in the corner, very still, holding a gray plastic bag and looking anxious. Eventually a library employee walks over to talk to the green-coated women. A few moments later, the employee helps her down the stairs. The woman is still smiling.

So passes a Sunday afternoon at the Massanutten Regional Library. The near-constant sound of receipts being printed out is punctuated by bouts of silence. A hush pervades the air of the library. Its strongest toward the back of the nonfiction section and weakest at the front desk and in the children’s department. Even there, the children seem to cry self-consciously.

Andrew Shantz remembers when he used to be a frequent visitor to the children’s department, long before he got his current job as a library assistant.

“It used to be that you could get a library card when you could write your name in cursive, so I would go home and practice,” Shantz said. Now he shelves books and DVD’s, works at the front desk and helps patrons. While interacting with customers is his favorite part of the job, it can also be a burden.

“We have unique patrons who will yell at you if they’re not happy about something. A lot of times there’s something else going on and we’re just an outlet. Like they have a fine and they have to keep the last $5 for the electrical bill. But 99 percent of people are gracious,” Shantz said.

Unique is a good word to describe the patrons of the library. Rarely will you find a collection of such varied individuals; an overweight woman in a pink shirt browsing romance novels, a college student pouring over a textbook, a business-like woman on her knees rooting around for a nonfiction book on the bottom shelf, a boy who can’t be more than 11 with an armful of books chosen from the Young Adult section.

A man with a dirty baseball cap and so much hair and beard that the only visible features on his face are eyes obscured by round glasses is reading in the Large Print Section. I recognize him from the previous Thursday, when he came up to me, confused because apparently some books in a series were categorized as Fiction and the others as Fantasy. Or at least I think it was the same man — there are a lot of men with dirty hair in the library.

A small collection of them is gathered in the chairs in the Fiction section on many afternoons. They are old men, with glasses and white socks, folded into themselves like the newspapers they read fervently. You can hear the crisp turn of the pages from several rows away. Shantz says the most commonly stolen items from the library are the newspapers and often the staff will find the Classifieds missing – presumably taken for the job listings.

Despite the occasional theft, the legendary “library ghost” (blamed for all computer issues), and a few weird occurrences (such as couples making out and finding an actual children’s toilet in the shelves), Shantz enjoys his job.

“I love the customers. It’s such a diverse group of people. You have the sweet little old ladies, the fun crazy people, the fun little kids,” Shantz said. “Seeing little kids get their first library card is one of my favorite parts of the job.”

Hard economic times have meant fewer opportunities for kids to do this; the library receives $32,000 less in funding than it did in 2000, which had resulted in the cutting of hours and two of the branches from the system. Despite this setback there are still a large number of people enjoying the library’s services on this particular Sunday, whether they be young, old, tatooed, alone, smiling, with their children, or reading quietly in the corner. The library is an educational watering hole for creatures of all shapes and sizes.

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