Bangor Public Library’s special something

Posted Oct. 10, 2010, at 7:45 p.m.

Ever since moving to Bangor and discovering the Bangor Public Library, I regularly engage in a silly argument with my three boys. It goes something like this:

Ford: Mom, can you take us to the library today?

Me: Not today. We have lots of things to get done around the house. Maybe tomorrow.

Owen: But Moooom, we want to go today. Can you please take us to the library?

Me: Did you not hear me the first time? I said, not today.

Lindell: I want to go to the library. I want to go to the library.

Me: Enough! I’ve heard enough. Stop asking me about the library. I said no. And if you keep whining and begging, we won’t go tomorrow either.

These exchanges remind me of the time that I, as a child, once tagged along with my mom to the grocery store to buy alcohol for a Navy party she was hosting that night. As we passed through the frozen-food section, I said, “Mom, can I buy some of those microwaveable green beans with almonds in it?”

Mom: Not today. I’m in a hurry.

Me: But I just want some vegetables.

Mom: Sarah, I’m hosting a party in a few hours. We’ll do our regular grocery shopping another time.

Me: But Mom …

Mom: We’re here to get alcohol and alcohol only.

Mothers nearby who had overheard our conversation clutched their chests and gasped. If I had a collection basket at the time, some of the onlookers probably would have given me money for green beans.

My mom laughs about this now. Someday, maybe I will laugh about the library arguments, too. But the truth is that currently my children want to go to the Bangor Public Library far more often (sadly) than I can manage.

What’s so special about the Bangor Public Library? It took me awhile to figure this out, too, even as I felt the mystique and allure walking through those enormously tall, wooden front doors. I couldn’t quite put my finger on that special something that makes our library different.

Of all the places we have lived as a military family, no other public library has served as a destination for my children. Never before have they begged me to take them to one. So why the Bangor Public Library? I mean, the concept is (or should be) the same: go to library, find book, check it out for free, then bring it back. And yet, the Bangor Public Library seems to offer so much more.

Then it occurred to me that the stone-and-brick building itself is part of the excitement. Built in 1913, the neoclassical construction, with a glass dome and second-floor windows that stretch from ceiling to floor, is entirely unlike the 1950s-style, rectangular buildings with flat roofs and industrial-grade carpet that my children had come to expect from government facilities such as post offices, schools and libraries.

Yes, the Bangor Public Library houses the same titles as any other public library we’ve visited, but getting to those bookshelves means walking up sweeping granite staircases, past grand fireplaces and gazing up at chandeliers and marble statues. There is a sense of history (how many other libraries can boast ghosts in the lecture hall and the sofa on which Vice President Hannibal Hamlin died?) and, more important, by the time you leave, a sense of having been somewhere. In an age where most of our daily activities and environments —big box, franchised stores and uninspired architecture — blend together, to have been somewhere different, someplace memorable, is a rare treat. Yet, it’s equally important to know that other children have walked those same stairs and past that same fireplace for nearly a century.

I doubt that my children could draw a picture of the libraries we used to frequent. Indeed, if I asked them to draw a library, I suspect they’d ask, “The Bangor library or the others?” Because there is a difference. And although my children cannot yet verbalize those differences, it’s clear that they feel them.

We like to say that today’s youths have no sense of permanence, history or place, and that they are lacking in their span of attention. But maybe we have overlooked the fact that, for at least the last 60 years, we have not built our libraries, our post offices and schools to be permanent and worthy of attention. Because it’s clear that when children are exposed to the history and beauty of a place such as the Bangor Public Library, they, like us, beg for more.

Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. She may be reached at sarah@sarahsmiley.com.

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