The day the library died in the tiny town of New Albany, Pennsylvania, rain fell from the clouds like a waterfall and didn’t stop. The already saturated ground gave way with nothing left to hold it in place. A week before the bottom floor of the library had taken on water in another flash flood, most likely weakening the foundation.
Volunteers were working to clean out the ruined books two days before the water rose again, sending water rushing up around the building as it had before, across the major highway running through town and toward the gas station in the middle of town.
This time the building couldn’t withstand the rush of the water. No one had expected it all to wash into highway it had sat next to for over 60 years, crumbling like a matchstick house, but it did, taking with it some of what one community member called “the dedication of so many to keep it going.”
The downstairs of the building, where the library was, was empty of people when the building collapsed, but a family upstairs was there and held on tight to each other as it fell and their apartment landed fully intact in the water rushing by. Neighbors and the local fire department helped to rescue them, pulling them out and across the rushing water to safety.
The building hadn’t always been a library. A few times it had been a store and above it was an apartment for those who ran the business downstairs. After it became the town library many volunteers, most middle-aged to older women who were retired or homemakers, filled it with books, organizing and categorizing and creating a gift for what some might call a dying town.
Inside its walls were whole new worlds; voices never before heard, thoughts never before thought, dreams never before dreamed, chances to be given, opportunities to be provided, and lives to be escaped for just a little while.
For some, a library doesn’t seem very important, especially in this modern age when books can be read on digital devices and smartphones. But to a town without much, a library can provide a sense of community, a sense of imagination, and even a feeling of belonging.
“Expand your mind” is the encouraging message added at the top of the library’s Facebook page, updated the week flood waters first damaged the library.
Who could blame members of the town if they felt a desire to give up a little bit more on the town when they saw the crumbled ruins of the library either in person or in photos. Some 30 years ago the only factory in town closed, and in subsequent years the town pool was filled in, the only local supermarket burned to the ground, the town bank closed, the elementary school closed, the population began to dwindle and hope began to fade.
The factory never came back but the store reopened and later became a mini-mart and gas station, there was still a post office, a beauty shop, a borough park where the pool once was, and a sense of community- if only one that hung by a thread.
While the town may be dying from an economic standpoint, there are some trying to keep the community feel alive by organizing family days, fire company fundraisers, and, of course, preschool storytime at the library.
Let’s be honest, anyone trying to keep the community feeling in a small town alive today should be commended since it isn’t the physical community that is dying in today’s society, but the idea behind what a community really is. Defined by Webster’s dictionary as “a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals,” the psychological idea of community is fading into a world where our primary form of communication is smartphones and social media, or anything that doesn’t involve actual in-person interaction.
When photos of the library smashed in the middle of Route 220 surfaced on social media last week a deep feeling of loss was expressed, maybe because so many remembered a simpler time when talking to people face-to-face was normal and days for reading and focusing on less than 10 activities at a time was normal.
Honestly, there isn’t much to the town anymore, in some ways. I grew up two miles from there and many of my days were spent riding bikes with my best friends, Julia and Sarah, on its’ streets. I attended the elementary school, swam in the community pool, walked to the local store for snacks, ate with my grandmother at the small diners that are now gone, and yes, even visited the library a couple of times.
For me and others, losing the library was like watching even more of the community break away. After the most recent flash flooding, the library won’t be the only building that will have to be torn down, a fact that only adds to the heartbreak.
“I can’t remember a time without the library,” one man said.
His mother, Doris, was one of the volunteers who worked to build the library’s collection. Now in a nursing home, she asks visitors from her hometown, “How’s the library doing?” Family and friends have decided they won’t tell her the truth about the building, but instead simply let her believe, as they’ve always told her, “It’s doing well.”
Another resident, Todd, said, “The library was a labor of love of so many people. There were many times when some thought it was not used and thus not needed, but these people persevered and keep it going. There were times when hardly anyone came, but they still were there during operating hours. The people were dedicated to keeping the library open, found ways to bring in new books and create programs for kids. And most recently, it became a place for local histories and genealogies. Breaks my heart to see it completely washed away. “
“I remember being very young and going to get a book. It was a big deal to be able to pick your own book out!” a cousin of mine, Gila, said. “I started volunteering at 16 with Doris. I’d stay a few years and then move on. I always came back.“
She was one of the main volunteers running the library, updating and rearranging it in the years and months before the flood destroyed it.
Volunteers aren’t yet sure if, or how, they’ll rebuild the library. A fundraising effort has started and the hope is that one day they’ll find a new home where they can again open a small bastion of imagination, nurtured community and unvetted learning in a small, sometimes physically crumbling town.
Since I recently rediscovered my love for reading full books, and not only short excerpts, I’d love to see the fundraiser succeed and for the spark of knowledge to be lit again. And maybe through it, a desire to rebuild the other parts of town damaged or falling apart even before the flood.