(...as told by librarian Louise Bechtel)
One of the tragic side effects of the digital age is the diminishing worth of community staples like public libraries. With the innovative technological additions of e-Readers and online rentals into the literary landscape, what’s to say that these beloved buildings full of dusty paperbacks and historical ambiance won’t someday become obsolete? Slatington librarian Louise Bechtel has something to say about that.
“I think there will always be a need,” she says. Bechtel has served the library for approximately 15 years and was a volunteer for years before that. “It was my night out,” she laughed. “I used to tell my husband, ‘OK, I’m going to the library!’ I have, maybe you’d call it a sickness: I love books.”
The library itself dates back to 1936, where it began in a church basement. It moved to its current location in 1985. (A full history of the library will be available at the 150th Sesquicentennial celebration.) The library acts as its own entity and is not owned by the borough or the school district. It also acts as a hub for those in need of a free computer lab.
“That’s our major draw,” said Bechtel. “Especially sitting here, in the 600 block of Slatington, people can’t afford Kindles or laptops. A lot of the time, it’s just kids playing games, but we do have a lot of people come in who need to work on their resume or file for unemployment."
According to Bechtel, with so much being done online these days, it’s particularly hard for those without access to a computer or the internet to handle things like that. “If you’re unemployed, how do you afford a computer?” she said. “So we’ll gladly help whoever needs it in whatever way. We have regulars, usually in their fifties, who have never had to do a resume before because they’ve had a job their whole life and are just now getting laid off.”
It’s difficult to predict just how helpful they’ll need to be sometimes. “I hope it never happens again, but we had a homeless woman come in who was just looking for a couch to sleep on,” said Bechtel. “That was terrible … but that’s life in a little town.”
The library offers more than just a quiet place to read or use the computers. “We have programs like the Wonderful World of Wildlife story hour, the Seven Day Club, a preschool reading program, diabetes lecture, the occasional author signing,” said Bechtel. “But the turnout isn’t great. We just can’t get people to come. I guess they’re not interested.”
Even still, they hope to grow their programs in the future in an effort to appeal to more people. They also aim to keep up with the times technologically. “Our circulation hasn’t been updated since 2000, so that will be fixed soon,” said Bechtel. “All the computers are running Windows Vista, so they’ll be upgraded. Our catalog and renewal system will be online. That’s our step into the future. We have to do it, because what we have now will soon be obsolete. We’re going to try to provide whatever people need.”
In order to provide for their patrons, they need financial help themselves. “We’ve gotten to the point where our state funding has been cut,” explained Bechtel. “We’re able to get capital improvement grants for the building, but those don’t pay the bills. One of our best fundraisers is the Chinese auction. We also do raffles. We’re raising little bits, like $200 here and there. What would really help is if a Friends of the Library started here. Palmerton has one; they’re very active. Right now, the board members are doing everything.”
They also get help from organizations such as Trexler Trust, Horsehead Corporation, and a small handful of others. But mostly, they rely on private donations to keep them going. “We’re a Mom and Pop organization with a $100,000 budget,” she said. “Wherever we can squeeze a nickel, that’s what we’re doing. People are good to us; that’s why we’re still here.”
The computers, which bring in the most people, are the biggest financial drain. “We’re trying to keep up to date with technology, but it’s expensive and it’s doesn’t last,” she said. “Meanwhile, you can buy a book and it’ll sit on the shelf for years and years … although our Harry Potters keep falling apart. Everyone wants to read Harry Potter."
Bechtel believes some people will always prefer books to technology. New additions to their collection are donated often, but they have to be in decent shape to make it onto the shelf. “We’ll get a whole yard sale’s worth, but we’ll only keep two or three. The rest go out in our book sales.” Or worse, they’ll be recycled. “That hurts,” she said. (Bechtel dreads the process of ripping the cardboard hardcovers from their paper stories.) They save the best ones for their sale at the annual Canal Festival.
In spite of her optimism, Bechtel does see the decline in the use of physical print books. “It’s kind of sad,” she said. “Kids don’t come in and do projects anymore. It used to be that they could only use so many internet sources, but you don’t see that anymore.” As Bechtel pointed out, only one major chain bookstore remains: Barnes & Noble. “I try to order my books from them so they don’t go out of business!” She mentioned a recent trip to Palo Alto for a wedding: “We passed a gated doorway and there was a theater marquee above it that said ‘Borders.’ I peeked inside and the store was built around a courtyard with a fountain in the center. Totally empty. It broke my heart—it must’ve been gorgeous.”
Bechtel hopes that people continue to see the value in their community libraries. “I think we’re accessible and user-friendly and free (except when you print!) and it’s so varied. That’s what keeps it interesting. I love helping people. On any given day, I could be doing IT or cataloging or checking people out … or washing windows,” she laughed. “And I want to find homes for all the books. I just want to get books into hands.”
Spoken like a true book lover.
Nine board members along with librarians Rosanne Pugh and Louise Bechtel (pictured below) run Slatington Public Library. Located at 650 Main Street in Slatington, it is open five days a week. More information can be found at www.slatelibrary.com.