GUEST COLUMN: How Jean the librarian enriched life for one small boy

The old Carnegie Library, seen here circa 1960 with its soon-to-be-demolished walls propped up, was the first library in Ontario to open its stacks to the public. Photo courtesy, Lambton County Library

Bob Boulton

“My mom said I should bring these back to you.”

I was standing at the curved oak desk of Sarnia’s old Carnegie Library with a thumping heart, fidgety feet, and a bag full of historical romances.

Behind the desk sat Jean, herself. She looked at me, sighed, nodded.

A distant memory of Jean and the old downtown library came to mind when I heard the news author Margaret Atwood was coming to town for a big-time sold-out first-time-ever visit.

You may not think of libraries as the most exhilarating places. Fireworks and marching bands are, admittedly, in short supply. But in our plugged-in grindstone lives it’s easy to look past the treasures our libraries, and their people, provide.

Take Jean, for instance. As American poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou once noted, “People will never forget how you made them feel.”

With Jean, my feelings were mostly respect, even awe, and later on, inspiration.

And to think my mother actually knew her. And called her Jean!

That early memory dates to the final days of the old Carnegie Library, in 1959 or ‘60, when utility poles set on an angle and wedged into the ground propped up its decaying south and east walls.

Jean moved to what we referred to long after its construction as the “new” library next door, and which today remains the main branch downtown.

I realize only now Jean was not the elderly sage I imagined her to be as a boy. She was a young woman with smooth skin and a steady gaze.

But what I do remember correctly is that my later, teenage assessment was accurate. Jean, by doing her job with expertise and courtesy, was a model to us all.

Some people such as police officers, firefighters and wellness professionals, work to provide for our safety.

Others work to advance community decency, such as charitable organizations. Not to mention many smaller initiatives such as those who, with doughnuts and coffee in hand, make Christmas Eve visits to the sailors on docked freighters at Sarnia Harbour.

But others, like librarians, enrich our lives.

My inspiration was Jean, who in the early days of the ‘new’ library suggested I might like Flowers for Hitler, by a promising young Canadian poet named Leonard Cohen.

Jean was my concierge of open stacks and the taker-backer of returned books. And she lent to me the luxury of new and different dreams.

Bob Boulton is a Sarnia writer. He gives thanks for today’s column to JB and to The Lady Who Knows Everything.