A community cornerstone’s hope

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By Amanda Bernat, Senior Library Assistant, Shrewsbury Public Library 

Shrewsbury Public Library

Shrewsbury – Amanda Bernat, a Senior Library Assistant with the Shrewsbury Public Library, recently wrote this reflection on her thoughts as the library has been closed to the public for nearly four months.  

 

Last night I dreamt I was walking through my silent, sleeping town, past clustered neighborhoods and along empty sidewalks bordering dark storefronts. I walked until I came to a central intersection, a place normally overflowing with traffic but now equally still and vacant. A large building towered to the rear left of this eerie juncture, part past and part present. Though regal, it, too, was quiet and somber, parking lot deserted, lights dim. The building beckoned and a familiar excitement quickened through my veins as I crossed the street, but my heart sank as I approached the front door and peeked around the “Closed” sign into the darkened lobby beyond. Before giving up, I gave a half-hearted tug at the front door, and, to my surprise, it sprang open, urging me forward and inside. Unable to resist, I crossed one threshold, then another, each set of doors closing firmly behind. The space was familiar, yet I couldn’t quite place it, couldn’t remember exactly where I was or when I’d last been there — it felt like an eternity, another lifetime, an ancient age before everything “now” had come to be — yet somehow, I knew that it had only been a few months.

The main desk in the empty library

I moved into the shadowed entryway, received by an expansive front desk and glass display case. Months-old newspapers covered the desk, while the empty case whispered of vivid, bygone exhibits and carefully curated collections. Walking on, I sensed traces of the welcoming smiles, patient voices, eager eyes, and warm conversations that once emanated from both sides. And I knew without a doubt that this was a singular place, a remarkable space that welcomed, empowered, and brimmed with possibility, a destination that varied depending on the day, the need, and the individual.

I proceeded down a wide hallway, feet soundless against the tiled floor, night sky visible high above where the ceiling soared and far beyond through striking glass doors. High-top tables cut a spectral, central line, a stark contrast to former crowds — students studying, friends visiting, families snacking, tutors teaching, event and meeting attendees arriving and departing. I peered into a large room, where tables were positioned six feet apart around the periphery, echoes of staff who last occupied the space — together-though-apart — planning and pondering, working and worrying.  A lone plant perched on the far windowsill, forlorn yet determinedly flourishing, sole survivor in an area ordinarily full, vibrant, and bustling.

Across the hall, a window-lined room brimmed with dim reminders of a former normal, when the area was routinely filled with vivacious teens.

A seating area in the empty library

Wandering through beautiful, spacious rooms, I explored extensive shelves, grazed spines, scanned titles, breathed in the rich, earthy aroma of paper, and recalled how any item could have been “mine” for an hour, an afternoon, an evening, or more, realized that it wasn’t just the things that made this place so special, vital, and inimitable, but the people. It was the enthusiastic staff, legendary leaders, passionate volunteers, generous supporters, dedicated patrons, chance visitors, new members, and casual browsers who gave it life, personality, purpose, and narrative.

And there was a place for everyone, the entire building equipped with ever-changing resources and constant spaces geared towards learning, leisure, play, and exploration.

An amazing concept — overwhelming, comforting, and liberating, the best type of sensory overload. And as I glanced out the window and saw the sky gradually lightening, I knew that my dream was nearly over. But instead of feeling sad at the prospect of waking, I felt relieved — hopeful for the first time in months — because while I couldn’t physically visit this beloved place right now, I could subsist on what it had already given me and thrive on what it continued to offer through virtual means. Until the day the sun would rise, staff return, lights turn on, doors open, and sign finally flip to “Open,” the library would be here, humming with promise, possibility, and potential, a community cornerstone whose story began in 1792 and briefly paused, modified, adapted, and digitized in 2020, primed for a “new normal” and prepared to provide help, enjoyment, entertainment, refuge, and empowerment to all who seek it, within its walls and beyond.

Photos/Priya Rathnam