"I cannot live without books," wrote Thomas Jefferson to John Adams. Apparently, neither can the citizenry of Newton County whose love affair with the Newton County Library helped propel it to the ranking of tops in the entire state, as judged by a national library ratings organization. But we knew this before the nation knew it, didn’t we?
Over 54,400 of us are registered patrons of the library, a little more than 50 percent of the county population. Across the state, the average is 30 percent. In the most recent fiscal year, there were a little less than one million visits to the library and close to 700,000 items checked out, including books, DVDs and audio books. In the fiscal year that ended in June, there were 193 programs specifically for children attended by 6,300, and 144 meetings held by community groups that themselves drew 6,600 people through its doors.
Our most congenial Library Director, Greg Heid, is an unnecessarily modest man and insists that the success the library enjoys be credited to his staff who generate many of the ideas that make the library a fun place to be and to work. For instance, one day the staff elected to dress up as their favorite author or character in literature, and Heid came in a trench coat and fedora to portray American detective writer Dashiell Hammett, author of "The Maltese Falcon" and "The Thin Man." Another time, the staff proposed for all to wear ties, including the women, and on another day, they would all wear one particular color. "Quiet Thursdays," when conversation gets dialed back and quiet prevails, are also a staff-generated idea. Heid says staffers have come up with many effective cost-savings measures in light of the budgetary crunch. Morale is not an issue at this library because everyone brings something to the table.
This may be hard to believe, but Heid came to his love of books via a most unlikely path. Growing up in Minnesota, he tells me, he was a poor reader, always in the bottom third of the reading groups in elementary school. Finally, he was diagnosed with slight dyslexia, and his mom tried an old-fashioned remedy. On nights when Greg wasn’t drying the dishes and his sister took a turn, his mom sat him on a kitchen stool and had him read out loud to her as she washed the dishes. That helped, but it wasn’t a cure, and he admits he coasted through high school reading lists thanks to Cliff Notes and movies based on the books he was supposed to be reading. "If you can’t read, there are a lot of tricks you use to convince people you can," he says.
Despite all this, he ended up in a library curriculum but from an audiovisual perspective. For his master’s thesis, he convinced the university to let him create an AV program of commercials and advertising for the library, the first unwritten thesis ever accepted. But when he ended up at the Columbus, Ga., library as head of the film and fine arts department, the reading bug finally bit. On lazy Sunday afternoons, he and friends would gather to read to each other the best works of Southern authors, such as Eudora Welty and Carson McCullers. The Southern classics totally captivated him, and his life was changed forever. "I finally got reading by hearing these books read aloud," he says.
Interestingly, for a man who runs the best library in the state, Heid has just acquired an e-reader that allows him to download books and newspapers almost instantaneously. "E-readers are great for people who want what they want now, but the ease of downloading material can run up a quite tab," he laughs. "They aren’t for everyone, particularly for those who love the feel, the look, even the smell of a real book. I don’t think e-books mean the end of books, by any means." And while the Newton library can’t yet afford to offer downloadable books, the staff refers patrons to several free websites for doing so, Heid adds.
Now do you wonder what this Renaissance man in our midst has stacked on his bedside table? He regularly keeps about four or so books going at a time. Being a sci-fi aficionado, he’s into "Changes" from the Dresden Files series popular with men. Another important book for a library director is "Watchers: The Rise of American’s Surveillance State." (Libraries have to be at the forefront of protecting personal freedom, Heid maintains.) And finally, he’s going back to books from his high school reading list that he never "read" at the time, such as Jane Austen’s "Pride and Prejudice" and Henry Thoreau’s "Walden" from 1854. Renaissance man, indeed.
Barbara Morgan is a resident of Covington with a background in newspaper journalism, state government and politics Her column appears on Fridays.