Hyde Park Library, 35 Harvard St., Hyde Park
The scene is this: an historic building that has won awards for renovation and accessibility, that is filled with ancient oak chairs and tables, warm wood floors, row upon row of book stacks, magazines, public reading rooms, private study rooms, increasingly sophisticated computer resources, films, music, games, videos, histories, journals, paintings, book clubs, young adult events, children’s story times, author readings, and on it goes without end.
Your point of reference? Hyde Park resident, Boston Public Library card holder. Your chief ally? Barbara Wicker. In her own words, reference is her life.
A resident of Jamaica Plain, Ms. Wicker has been working as a librarian in the Boston system since 1968, first in Roslindale, then South Boston, finally arriving at her professional home in Hyde Park in 1970. Including two years off for maternity leave, she has amassed 40 years of service to the city. In fairness, she told me at the outset of our interview that she was leaving. She wondered aloud if I might be better served by talking to her replacement because in 2009 she will retire. That typifies her nature and the nature of our exchange. She wanted me to get the right information and all of it.
For someone who has seen many ups and downs in the city budget, giving out the right information is largely a matter of getting it to people when and where they need it. The library suffers from a lack of visibility, or perhaps it is lack of mind space. After years of affluence and seemingly limitless retail spending in malls and bookstores, in video stores and at Amazon.com, the American buyer’s obsession with ownership has been the public library's chief competitor. Now, as times have taken an ugly economic turn, the library seems to be rising again to its once prominent place. “When the settlers of Hyde Park moved here, the first municipal building they built was the library, even before the town hall.” Barbara points out. “There is a long tradition here. This is the third building to house the library.” Yet, many people don’t use the library and so increasing its use is one of her goals. “People don’t know how much we have. Especially in the online area, we have business databases that would cost an individual quite a bit. It’s all free to our members. We have passes to the Museum of Fine Arts, the Science Museum, the Children’s Museum. It’s all on the web site.” I take her point, there’s too much to list in an interview.
What would she do if she had an unlimited budget? “Make sure it all stays funded. The extensive collections, the physical facility with its original chairs, the computers that need constant updating, the staff; we have four librarians and four administrative staff. That’s a full complement. Because we are fully staffed we can be open on Monday and Thursday nights and on Saturdays, but the Copley branch is open on Sundays!” I can hear a wistfulness in her voice, as she imagines her branch open all the times when people would use it the most. She is hard pressed to think of new ways to spend money, just doing what they do now and doing it better and longer would be more than enough for her. “Jewish Vocational Services hold ESL classes here, we proctor exams, we provide places for immigrants to become literate, fluent. People come in after work. They apply for jobs at our computers.”
As she talks my eye wanders around the building. It is a day before Christmas Eve and the library is a little slower than normal yet people are still here. They are browsing and reading and meeting, doing homework, teaching, participating in civic life. It occurs to me that the public library is a vastly underappreciated lynchpin in our democracy and that Barbara Wicker has dedicated her professional life to an ideal that has come increasingly under attack: freedom of and access to information. She’s not gone yet, but Hyde Park will surely miss her. If you never felt that you had a reason before, now you ought to drop by if only just to say thanks, but preferably to see all that the library has to offer.
Ø In 2001 the American Institute of Architects recognized Schwartz Silver Architects, Inc. with its National Honor Award for the renovation and addition to the Hyde Park Library.
Ø With its extensive network, every book in the Boston system is available to every cardholder at his or her local branch. Interlibrary circulation is up throughout the system.
Ø After attending the historic inauguration of Barack Obama, Hyde Park’s own 54th volunteer regiment, the same all black regiment that distinguished itself in the Civil War and was the subject of the film “Glory” will hold a special program at the Hyde Park Library during February school vacation. Contact the branch for details.