(For James Ross Kelly)

“It sounds like there’s a poem in there somewhere,” he said,
Which is the sort of thing that poets say
Little realizing, perhaps, how they often disturb the world.

It is true that it pleases me that the key to the back door
Also opens the front door and how the books sit, shelved
In the dark, waiting for me to bring some light.

But now, well, every damned thing seems to have
A poem in it somewhere waiting for the right words
And my comfortable way of seeing things has gone from me.


On Monday mornings at 9:30, I unlock the back door at Myrtle Creek Library and step into a dimly lit back room. There are a few lights scattered about the building for nighttime security, but most have been turned off in order to save the city money on the power bill. Seeing the main room shelves with their books waiting in darkness, is always a moment of anticipation, almost sacred, as if I should be genuflecting when I step inside the door. Every word in each of those books came into this place because a writer had the courage to fill a blank page with words. Here, in this small-town temple of knowledge and compassion, those carefully chosen words wait for me to turn on the lights.

In my weekly volunteer routine, I click the switches one by one: one for the office, two for the big room, one for the back storage closet, two more for the reading room, and one each for the men’s and women’s restrooms. There is comfort and satisfaction in making my rounds, a matter of bringing both literal and metaphorical enlightenment to my little rural world which sits like a small green island in a sea of mountain ridges, not cut off from the world at large but, to some extent, sheltered from it.

There are thirty busy minutes between my arrival at the back door and ten o’clock, when the first patrons may arrive. The necessary tasks are simple and not terribly time-consuming, and although two of them can be done after opening, there are several of them.

The backdoor key also opens the front door, and that door has a small “Closed/Open” sign that I reverse. Although the library isn’t officially open for another half hour yet I don’t mind letting someone in. This doesn’t happen often but, when it does, it is usually someone in an urgent hurry to get to the restroom or a transient simply looking for warmth after a night out in the cold.

Just inside the front door is a small yard sign announcing our used book sale. The sale is a permanent fixture that used to be an annual event back when this library was part of a county-wide public library system and was open forty hours per week, spread out over six days. Now this place is available twenty hours per week on four days and is staffed by volunteers like me and depends on grants, the used books, and empty bottles and cans that our patrons drop off for us so that we can collect the ten-cent deposit. The sign gets planted out on the front lawn next to the much larger steel sign which reads:

Friends of Myrtle Creek Library

100% Volunteer

Blood, Sweat and Tears

I don’t recall any blood being spilled in the process of reclaiming the town library, but there were, in fact, real tears shed when it finally closed, and it did take some hard work to get it reopened.

My favorite part of the mornings is sweeping the front walkway. For six months back in the 1970s I worked as a clean-up man for a local veneer plant, a surprisingly dangerous job. I’d been hired to replace the previous floor sweeper who had been killed while working beneath the machinery when someone, unfortunately, pushed a switch and left him a mangled corpse. It was satisfying work (as all of the most menial jobs always seem to be) and I enjoyed the freedom to move from place to place within the huge building while nearly everyone else stood in the same spot for ten hours endlessly repeating the same motions in obedience to the demands of the machinery. I was a young buck back then and now, in my dotage, I serenely wield my broom, secure in the knowledge that the only profit involved is cleanliness and that no one will notice the fruits of my brief labors. Like leadership, the results of essential work well done should go unremarked by those who benefit from it.

We have two small plastic hand baskets of the sort that are usually found stacked just inside the front door of a grocery market. These sometimes come in handy for returning books and CDs to the shelves but most often they are used for bringing books and newspapers in from the outdoor drop box. Our county’s daily supplies us with a generous drop of five copies for each new edition. These go in the reading room and are really too many, considering that so few come by to read them but, after a few days, they do serve as free fire starters for some of our elderly patrons.

The newspaper did a feature article recently marking the fifth anniversary of the demise of our Douglas County Library System and the efforts to reopen all eleven of those libraries. It was good for the libraries to have a write-up and flattering to read the heroic portrayal of the work being done by the many library volunteers at work throughout the county. But there was little consideration of the tragic budget cuts and even more tragically failed property tax measure that killed the system. The piece also didn’t mention that those libraries are now open to the public for about half of the hours that they had with county funding. The simple fact is that there has not been any adequate library service in the county for the past five years.

The busy Monday morning routine continues with a brief inspection of the restrooms (toilet seat up for the men’s and down for the women’s), checking the book-drop box books in, searching the shelves for reserved books, setting up the daily visitor record sheet and setting up the till.

I try to set up the cash register before anyone comes in, counting out the Federal Reserve notes and quarters carefully to make sure that the starting amount is always the same each day. There’s a worrisome sense of responsibility that comes with handling the cash, not from an actual fear of theft or robbery but there is a weighty formality to the process of handling the economic lifeblood of this beloved place. But then, simply being there at work in the library is, after all, a responsible act.

The first patrons of the day are almost always some of our elderly neighbors. The mommies and toddlers come later and the school-age kids show up after three. As with large swaths of rural America, we have a high percentage of elderly citizens along with a high percentage of poverty. As a result, many of the older folks who come in are poor people. But the most trying part of their lives seems to be loneliness and that, I think, is what most often brings them in to this warm and well-lit place where they can talk to friendly neighbors who just want to be helpful. More than half of those volunteers are themselves retirees who have arrived in our area relatively recently. It is, for them too, a way to counter isolation, to make friends among their fellow volunteers and among the library’s patrons.

It seems odd to me now that it wasn’t until I began working here that I realized that these common institutions are critically important to their communities not just as centers for study and entertainment but, more importantly, as antidotes to the twin plagues of isolation and alienation.

Robert Leo Heilman is the author of Overstory: Zero, Real Life in Timber Country an essay collection set in Myrtle Creek, Oregon where he has lived for forty-seven years.