Home > About > Bill Peak's Library Column > Find Healing at the Talbot County Free Library
There are many things I have loved about working at the Talbot County Free Library—the people, the books, the aura of communal goodwill that hangs about the building like a warm embrace. But working there has also taught me something I did not know before.
The library belongs to the people of Talbot County; it is their place to learn, to discuss, to be entertained, and, just as important, it is their refuge, a place of quiet in which they can attend to their own thoughts without fear of contradiction. To create and sustain such a refuge, library staff members take something of a pledge: it is our job to remain nonpartisan, to create a place where both sides of an issue can feel safe to express their opinions knowing they are on neutral ground, that the rug they stand upon will not suddenly be pulled out from under them.
When I first went to work for the library, first learned of this pledge, I thought it would be a bother, having all my life enjoyed crossing swords with any and all comers. But I was in for a surprise. Just as avoiding politics and religion when at table can help keep a family together, so avoiding taking sides on touchy subjects can help hold a community together. As a member of the library staff, one learns the value of listening; one learns the value of patience; one learns the value of respecting people. And most important of all, one learns that what makes a library a library is not the building or the books, but the people—both patrons and staff—that it is only together that we can make this miraculous library thing actually work.
On January 6, a mob composed of everything from people dressed in military gear to those who seemed to be living out some sort of Viking fantasy broke into and desecrated Democracy's holiest of holies: the U.S. Capitol. For anyone who has ever watched the final rays of a late afternoon sun set that building's dome aglow, burnishing it with what seems to be all the accumulated wisdom, genius, and foresight of our Founding Fathers ... that riot was a scene out of nightmare. One of our neighbors who worked for years as a congressional aide told me her boss wept when he saw the images. Members of the mob smeared the building's walls with ordure; they beat a Capitol Police officer to death.
A friend of mine, whom we'll call “Charlie,” telephoned me not long after the riot. He said he wanted to talk to me about what had happened, try to get some kind of handle on how we had come to such a pass. Feeling pretty shaken myself, I leapt at the chance, Charlie being one of the smartest people I know. We talked for almost an hour, giving vent to all our worries and concerns, expressing our shock. I was born in Kentucky, and Charlie spent a lot of time there growing up, so we were both raised upon the stories and myths of the Lost Cause. Again and again, talking on the phone, we found ourselves noting the similarities between the days leading up to the Civil War and the days we live in now, the growing sense of a national divide, bald-faced lies presented as perfectly reasonable truths, the subtle and not-so-subtle appeals to violence, a president-elect threatened at his inaugural with assassination, the nation's capital an armed camp.
Charlie ended our conversation by recommending I read Adam Goodheart's 1861: The Civil War Awakening, which chronicles the steps that led up to our nation's great suicidal blood-letting. I haven't read the good professor's book yet (Goodheart is the Hodson Trust-Griswold Director of the Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College), but Charlie's recommendation is good enough for me, and I hope it will be for you as well. The library's holding a copy for me right now, and there are plenty more available where that came from. But check it out from the library or not, I ask that you take a moment now to think about the institution that makes that book and so many other wonderful materials available to you free of charge.
The Talbot County Free Library, like our nation's Capitol, exists because our forefathers had faith in us, because they believed we were wise enough to be trusted not just with free books but with freedom itself. That we would not hoard our treasure but share it, that we would reach out to those less fortunate than ourselves, that we would lift each other up, and, in doing so, lift up not just the country but the world. We got to where we are as humans, have achieved all that we have achieved (as scientists are now confirming) through cooperation not confrontation. This past year we lost more Americans to Covid than we lost to violence in all four years of the Second World War. As individuals we can't cure Covid, but we can cure violence. Let us all, here and now, take a bit of a library pledge, let us resolve to be patient with one another, to listen to one another, to remind ourselves—when conversations become tense—that we are not just Democrats or Republicans or even just Americans, we are human beings ... and we are all in this together.
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