Books and libraries have been approaching endangered species status for some time now.
By Eileen Flood O’Connor
Books and libraries have been approaching endangered species status for some time now. As more and more people make purchases, conduct research, and simply read on-line, the need for space to house and browse bookshelves has seriously been called into question. However, there remains a segment of the population for whom the on-line ‘netherworld’ does not translate and for whom ‘logging on’ will never compare to ‘walking in’ to a building filled not only with books, but with people who love them.
Unlike many girls her age, my daughter Erin doesn’t have a phone, email address, Facebook page, or Instagram account. In fact, in order to communicate with her you pretty much have to be standing right in front of her, and even then demand that she look you in the eye – a request which may or may not be followed depending on her mood and the person making it.
There are a magical few, however, who readily command her attention and sustain her eye contact. For several years now, the librarians of the Rye Free Reading Room have not only welcomed Erin — and her service dog, a black Lab named Pablo — but engaged her in a continuous conversation.
Erin, who has an autistic spectrum disorder, has always loved books: the look, the feel, the pictures, and the words. She is drawn to their physicality – generally the bigger and heavier the better. While language came late and communication still poses its challenges, Erin feels most at home in a space that reveres and celebrates words. She taught herself to read by memorizing what words look like. She learned that words together combine to tell a story and it is in these stories and books that she has found a medium, which explains and enhances her experience of the world and the passage of time itself.
Erin marks the calendar year through books: books about reindeer and snowmen; hearts and Valentines; shamrocks and spring; Easter eggs and Memorial Day; sandcastles and fireflies; back-to-school and falling leaves; apple and pumpkin picking; jack-o-lanterns; turkeys and giving thanks. She experiences and expresses unparalleled joy upon discovering the Christmas books once again.
To her delight and amazement, Erin has found a group of kindred spirits at the library who gauge and celebrate the seasons in much the same way she does. She marvels at the topical display of shiny hard-covered books as she enters the children’s reading room. And she, and I, appreciate beyond measure that in this sacred space she has found a few individuals who are not only as assiduous about categorizing, locating, and loving books as she, but are so very patient and kind.
Erin is not the most silent of library visitors and as she bounces up and down the aisles and I implore her to keep her voice down, the librarians say nothing but: “What can I help you find?”
On a recent visit, Erin asked a librarian if she could locate “the nursery book about the pie.” Before I could offer a few more specifics, the woman turned to her computer, typed a few words, and began to sing: “Ah yes, Erin, ‘sing a song of sixpence a pocket full of rye, four and twenty blackbirds’ … I know that one … let’s see – and here it is…” And without saying another word, the two of them disappeared behind a bookcase only to return moments later with the book – which, indeed, had a picture of a pie and a smattering of blackbirds on its cover.
On our next visit it was a ‘blue dictionary’ Erin was after. Undoubtedly she had spied one in her classroom or school library that she was not allowed to take home. Upon announcing that she would like a “blue dictionary,” the librarian did not roll her eyes or tell her that sounded like a stretch as I might in an impatient moment, but instead replied “Hmm, let’s take a look over here,” and led her and Pablo off to the resource room from which she returned holding a sizeable dictionary emblazoned with a spine of royal blue.
The library serves as a place where one must interact if only with a few words and engage with the world and those in it. For Erin, it offers an invaluable exercise. At first, the tangible exchange of a book from one hand to another was very hard for her because she does not like to let go of her books, even for the time it takes them to be scanned. Yet over time she learned to wait and to trust that the librarian would give her back the book. And as her familiarity with this space has grown, so has her language. Every trip serves as an exercise in communication, in practicing how to say hello and to ask how are you and have you seen the Big Red Barn, and yes, it is a wonderful book, and thank you for finding it for me. And good-bye library — I will see you next time.
In recognition of Autism Awareness Month I wrote this article to honor, thank, and celebrate the staff of the Rye Free Reading Room: Mary Anderson, Anne Brauer, Jessica Centuori, Donna Harvey, Jeanne Klein, Doreen Lavista, Donna Marager, and Meg Stackpole, for all they do to help Erin and every child who walks through their door find a book – and a smile.