Libraries put their cards on the table.

If you really want to irritate Marti Fiske, bring up Marian the Librarian. Marian was the prim and proper River City librarian with sensible shoes from “The Music Man.” Or just sidle up to someone at the Dorothy Alling Memorial Library in Williston, where Fiske is the director, and bring your finger to your lips and go “Shush!” The only thing Fiske might hate more than the stereotypes we have of librarians is the stereotypes we have of libraries themselves.

“The library today is not your old mausoleum of silence and dusty classics,” she says. “Libraries are not the stuffy worlds some people recall from their childhood.”

Beginning today – which also happens to be the start of National Library Week – the Vermont Library Association is hoping to squash that sort of typecasting and convey to Vermonters what a modern library is really like. Fiske, president of the VLA, is among the masterminds behind a multimedia campaign to convince us that libraries are not the blacksmith shops of the twenty-first century. Three 15-second public service announcements will be airing on television this week, along with three matching print ads, all of which share the theme, “Vermont libraries can take you anywhere.” The TV was produced by RETN, with 21-year-old University of Vermont senior and aspiring filmmaker Stephan Ruiz in charge of the project and directing the videos.

And this indeed might be one of those cases where perception and reality are separated by a frost heave the size of Mount Mansfield. The perception is that the library is a dinosaur and no one uses them. This notion is especially ingrained among some legislators and politicians. To wit: My aunt, who lives in Georgia, emailed me when my most recent novel was published with what she presumed was good news. “You are so popular! I am 63rd on the waiting list at my library for your new book!” I pointed out to her this was not a testimony to the popularity of my work; it was an indication of how badly her library’s budget had been slashed in a tough economy.

The reality is that in most places, library usage is either stable or up. Vermont has 183 public libraries and between 2009 and 2010, circulation, visits, and program attendance were more or less even. Computer use, however, increased by 10 percent and what librarians call “off-site services” – daycares, bookmobiles, and senior centers – skyrocketed by 36 percent.

That’s one of the things I love about libraries: They remain one of the few parts of our culture that is magically and unambiguously multigenerational. Debi Gray is the librarian in Lincoln. “The thing I love and value most about libraries is their ability to connect with people across age boundaries. Today a library is a community center,” she says, and then rifles off the bone builders workshops for seniors, story times for toddlers, and upcoming author appearances that are on the schedule at her library.

And, clearly, the Vermont Library Association awareness campaign understands that libraries transcend any one demographic. One of the PSAs features a young girl, while another stars a senior citizen.

Likewise, the effort stresses the role that libraries play in our digital future. “You can try out all kinds of new technologies here,” Fiske explains, adding that more and more patrons are bringing their eReaders into her library and asking how the devices will work with library products. This is, of course, just one more indication of the way her job has evolved beyond the uptight, hair-in-a-bun spinster from River City.

“Libraries are far more than just the materials in the building. It’s the librarians who know the information and can provide access to it,” Fiske says.

And, best of all, these days they’re far less likely to shush you.

(Chris Bohjalian’s most recent novel, Secrets of Eden, was just published in paperback. His next novel, The Night Strangers, arrives on October 4, 2011. This essay originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on April 10, 2011.)


Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.