What’s Old is New

Especially at the Wilmington libraries

By Dana Sachs

Harry Tuchmayer

Job: Director, New Hanover County Libraries

First moved to Wilmington: 1981

Favorite spots:

With his wife: Le Catalan on the Riverwalk, with a glass of wine

With his friends: The Halyburton Park Nature Trail

With his grandkids: Hugh MacRae Park

What do you like to read?

You know, I’m the wrong person to ask. I love seeing what other people read. Our branch managers read such eclectic stuff. I’m your typical person. Give me a Clive Cussler! Or nonfiction. In the last few years, I’ve been really fascinated by the 1930s: The Boys in the Boat. Seabiscuit. Unbroken.

When you said, ‘I’m the wrong person to ask,’ I thought you were saying you don’t read. But you do read.

I’m not a voracious reader like my wife. She’ll read dozens of books. I’m a lot more picky than my wife and a lot of our customers.

Why did you become a librarian?

My first job, beyond being a paperboy, was as a reference page in the Beverly Hills Public Library. Two years later, I needed a job to help pay for college, so I went to the library. I went on to work on a Ph.D. in history. I finished all my coursework, (but) never wrote a dissertation. One day (the library administration) asked me if I wanted to go to library school. I guess you go with your strengths!

What do you see as your mission in the library?

Libraries really are central to a community. They are the heart and soul of a city. Not in the old sense that we’re just a repository of our history and our culture — though we are — but (a library) responds so well to the changing life cycle. We supply people with the information they need to live. Our challenge is to stay relevant, and I think we have.

How?

Everyone always thinks, ‘Well, what are you going to do (at a library)? We’ve got Google.’ Well, you’ve got Home Depot. You’ve got Lowe’s, but we still need plumbers. I mean, there are some things that maybe you shouldn’t touch. It’s OK if you are just changing the faucet head, but what if you’ve got this major plumbing problem? How many of us get halfway through and then think, ‘Oh, my goodness. What did I do?’ So, (librarians are) skilled at helping people navigate through tons of information. Yeah, if you’re planning a trip to Santa Fe, you can get the weather history by Googling, but if you’re trying to develop a business plan, or you’re looking at something a little more complex, you may want to come here to get assistance in how to filter your search in terms of narrowing down that information.

In what other ways have libraries remained relevant?

The biggest area is that child-parent connection. There is nothing more enjoyable than having a child sit in your lap and read to them. We’ve got a great (children’s book) collection. We do story times on a regular basis. If you want to give your kid a head start in the world, just bring them to the library.

What resources might people not know about?

People would be amazed if they saw the depth of knowledge our staff has in the way of technology. I always point to our local history room. We’re talking archives, dusty old papers, things like that, but our staff are some of the most innovative people in terms of technology. There’s this product called Historypin where you can look up pictures of an old site — say, the corner of 3rd and Chestnut — over a 200-year period. The computer matches all of the same pictures for that location and you can see it change over time. In all of this, there’s such an opportunity to blend old and new.

The new Pine Valley Branch will open next year. What can we expect?

It’s on the corner of 17th Street and College Road, so it’s really the heart of New Hanover County. We’ve designed this building in a slightly different way. There will be a robust self-check system, so (staff will be) on the floor more and available to help you find what you’re looking for. We’ve got a whole bunch of stuff dedicated to that school-age child, really all the way up through high school. We want to have stuff that brings older kids back into the library, so we’ve got a maker’s space, (which allows) you to create your own things. That could be anything (from) sewing machines to a 3-D printer. We have to work within our means, and part of its budget, but, long-term, we would want all of those things.

What is your view on the debate over the future of the Main Library downtown: Tear it down and redevelop it within a mixed-use project, or preserve it in its current historic building?

It’s not the best building. Look, we love history. I would go out of my way to preserve a historic site. This is a square box. A lot of the features of what people remember from the Belk’s (Department Store) building aren’t there any more. The architecture here is nothing unique. It’s symbolic of a particular time and place and architectural style, but there’s tons of that.

There’s tons of that in Wilmington?

Well, there’s tons in North Carolina. I’m not an architectural historian and I don’t pretend to be. And I’m not saying that there isn’t value in the building, but I think that it’s a trade-off. Growth and change is a trade-off. And the library could function in an awesome way in a new facility. But it’s a community decision and it’s fine either way. Either way we’ll have a vibrant library downtown.

Let’s say that some amazingly generous donor told you, ‘I’m going to give the library a million dollars.’ What would you do with it?

(Pause.)

Should I say 10 million dollars?

OK, 10 million! Wow. There’s so much you could develop. There are libraries that have these spaces available for tech Tuesdays, where small businesses collaborate in a workspace. You could have that technology grid. And (I’d like to display) every cookbook that’s ever published. A recipe collection. I know you can find these recipes online, but (that’s not the same as) looking through a pile of 10 cookbooks. You’d serendipitously see recipes you never even thought of before.

If we had the money, (we could have) a technology petting zoo, where we’d have the latest that people wanted to test out before they buy it. (And) extending the outdoor space for kids when they come to story time. We want to have that, too. All of that’s possible. We try to do it every day with the little dollars that we have. It just takes longer.

I love the range here. Some of these ideas sound like complete opposites — the newest technology and then old-fashioned cookbooks.

That’s what the library is. It’s got everything.

Dana Sachs’s latest novel, The Secret of the Nightingale Palace, is available at bookstores, online and throughout Wilmington.

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