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Glad to Be of Service

book-pages-in-shape-of-a-heartDuring the past few years that I’ve served as a librarian in Norwood, I’ve split my time between two very different departments: Literacy and Outreach. I choose this word – served – deliberately, as opposed to worked or something equally utilitarian, because it connotes an added layer of meaning and more fully captures the reason I gravitated to this profession. To me, service implies a certain sense of being a helpful person or, as denoted by Merriam-Webster online: contribution to the welfare of others. Books are lovely, reading is essential, and a steady paycheck is reason for gratitude, but until librarians are paid like bank executives simply to read, there must be a raison d’etre. For myself (and, I imagine, many others) this larger purpose is contributing to the welfare of our patrons. My dual role has provided a unique opportunity for doing just that across the widest spectrum imaginable; many participants in the Literacy program are just beginning their reading journey, while usage of the library by Outreach patrons can be measured in spans of time that eclipse decades and can better be described in terms of generations.

The Literacy program at the library was established in 1983 by the board of trustees. It targeted a group previously unserved by the library: non-readers. Then (as now) it offered free, confidential one-on-one tutoring to adult students seeking to learn or improve reading and writing skills, and to help ESL students develop conversational skills. Norwood’s annual report for that year described the program as: inestimable service at a miniscule cost. Now one of a dozen affiliate programs of Literacy Volunteers of Massachusetts, its purpose today is unchanged, and it remains the only one of its kind initiated by library trustees. Although all in-person activities were suspended last March due to the pandemic, and some of our tutoring pairs have opted to wait until they can meet in person again, many of our tutors rose to the occasion and began tutoring their students online. Some even offered to help out by taking on an additional student. Interestingly, some tutoring pairs prefer meeting online due to issues such as transportation or childcare. The rest of the activities of the program have also been adapted to an online format – a tremendous undertaking, considering the scope of activities. These include: tutor orientations and multi-week trainings, testing students, matching new tutors and students, and holding numerous meetings and trainings for staff and existing tutors. I find it remarkable that over the past year and in spite of the fact that we have had no in-person interactions in the Literacy department, we’ve heard from about 40 people who want to volunteer as tutors. Service abounds!

Outreach efforts to Norwood’s homebound population started in 1939. The Town’s annual report for that year notes that delivery of books was made available to library patrons for a small fee. This amenity was apparently used numerous times by those who were ill. Two other keystones of the program – our collection of large print books and the deposit collections – surface in the 1969 annual report, which conveys the library’s goal of collaborating with local service agencies to offer book delivery to nursing homes; it also shares that readers appreciated having access to large-print editions of new titles. It is amazing to me that the services provided today were put into motion so long ago. Now, we also loan books on CD, CD players, and assistive technology such as Ruby handheld video magnifiers. In addition, the library keeps a small collection of Perkins Talking Books on hand. Over the years core offerings have been supplemented by programming such as offsite book groups, an annual essay contest and the Literary Lunch over which students and seniors discuss a selected title together. I hear regularly from patrons eager to resume these activities.

Happily, Outreach now offers delivery to homebound Norwood residents free of charge. Although the library closed along with the rest of the world last March due to the pandemic, when we reopened the building to the public in August we also resumed deliveries. Strict protocol was enacted to keep patrons safe: masked staff avoided interactions by leaving materials in bags outside homes. Still, when folks called to place requests they expressed their profound gratitude that we were able to bring them books during such an isolating time. One feisty reader quipped that our deliveries kept her off the street. I appreciated her humor all the more when I reflected that it had probably been quite some time since she had physically been able to be on said street. Another made me laugh out loud when I listened to a message he’d left imploring me to get back to him so he didn’t go crazy, staying in and looking at the idiot box. These anecdotes, and the personal stories others have shared with me over the years, reveal the power of the book to help people through life’s more harrowing times. I’ve witnessed people read themselves through loneliness, illness and loss; I’ve delivered books to people until the very end, and in this respect I have seen books act more like friends than distractions. I would like to dedicate this column, however unexceptional, to the extraordinary people I’ve had the opportunity to get to know through the library. My thanks to them for sharing their stories, their humor and their perspectives, all of which has greatly enriched my time here.

Interested in digging into past happenings in the town of Norwood from the comfort of your home? Simply visit our website and click on the Services tab, then select Reference & Research, and click on Digital History Archive, where you will find an extensive offering of documents that have been digitized and are keyword searchable, such as Town of Norwood Annual Reports, Norwood High School Tiot yearbooks, and selected years of Norwood Transcript and Bulletin. If you need help or have questions, give us a call at the library. We are glad to be of service.

Kirstie David is the Literacy/Outreach Librarian at the Morrill Memorial Library in Norwood, MA. Look for her article in the April 8, 2021 issue of the Transcript and Bulletin.


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