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Book It

Why a local library should be top on the must-do list of every traveler — and not just bibliophiles

By Laurie Bain Wilson

Wherever I travel, I always visit the local library. Libraries are home to many books, of course, but it's often the library itself that holds the most compelling stories — giving an authentic sense of a place that the tourist attractions often don't.

A group of people being read to at a local library. Next Avenue
Anne St. Onge, the director of the Mackinac Island Public Library, reads in front of the fireplace  |  Credit: Mackinac Island Public Library

My favorite library is a small turquoise jewel, the Mackinac Island Public Library, located on carless (cars are banned) Mackinac Island in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. If awards were ever given for the most bewitching library, we've got a winner. This gem is painted varying shades of vibrant colors —inside walls are bright turquoise and quartz rose pink and the building's exterior is a robin's egg blue — and the views of Lake Huron from the windows are a scene-stealer.

My first and only visit to tiny Mackinac Island (it's about four-square miles) was about 25 years ago in late summer with my seven-year-old son. We enjoyed exploring Revolutionary War-era Fort Mackinac, eating fudge (the island is celebrated for its fudge), our many horse-drawn carriage rides and bicycling to explore the stunning island.

One afternoon, a bike ride took us serendipitously to Mackinac's little library. And it is there that I felt the island's heartbeat. I thought about the incredible significance that this library must have in the cold, long winter months. Most of the shops, restaurants and hotels are closed in the off-season — although there is a bar, Mustang Lounge, that stays open and has for years.

"Mackinac Island's year-round population fluctuates but is around 492," says Anne St. Onge, director, Mackinac Public Library. "Cardholders include part-time residents, as well as year-round residents for a total of 693."

The library is basically one main reading room, with an antique chandelier that presides when the natural light isn't bathing those bright walls — that chandelier once hung in John Jacob Astor's mansion in Newport, Rhode Island. A smaller room, The Rosa Webb Room, holds the Mackinac Collection, a historic collection of everything Michigan; it is named for the woman who established Mackinac's first library.

My favorite library is a small turquoise jewel, the Mackinac Island Public Library.

Spoiler: "The back porch of the library is everyone's secret spot no one else knows about," says St. Onge. And there are Adirondack chairs there to sit and take in the lake view — and to read, of course.

I was particularly drawn to the library's fireplace, which roars with warmth when the temps don't soar — what a setting for a cozy read. The fireplace is adorned with tiles that are works of art, and above the fireplace is a Shakespeare quote from "The Tempest," which is set on a fairy isle, not unlike Mackinac. It reads, "The isle is full of noises, sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not."

Like many of the libraries I have visited on my many travels through the years, a free author series is presented, and frequent (sometimes permanent) used book sales — which is also a great secret. Why pack and lug vacation books if you can have fun selecting a couple at your destinations's local library?

"Visitors are not allowed to check out books so we offer a very large area of used books for sale, very popular," says St. Onge.

And, like most libraries, vacationers can participate in activities and programs — for children and adults. In summer, the Mackinac library hosts art shows, puppet shows, even a duct tape workshop, as well as guest presenters who cover many topics and issues including talks about the history of the island. "Visitors in the summer enjoy the many programs we offer," says St. Onge. "Families enjoy the children's area to take a break from the hustle and bustle of Main Street. The chess set is used multiple times a day."

"We even had a sleepover in the library in February three years in a row."

But it is those long winter months that captivated my imagination about the library's significance, especially for the children who live here. "School classes come to the library once a month, circumstances permitting," says St. Onge. "Also popular is Build-it-Day (Legos, cardboard and other building materials) for kids in the winter." In past years, the library also had a Peas in a Pod preschool program. And grade-schoolers also visit on Fridays in the wintertime for an after-school crafts program — cookies and hot cocoa are involved.

"We even had a sleepover in the library in February three years in a row," says St. Onge.

The library offers many of the same services of a mainland library — faxing, printing, copier, Wi-Fi and also subscribes to a few major newspapers (and two local) and 20 magazines, says St. Onge.

"So imagine sitting in the comfy chairs in front of a warm fire listening to the tick of the antique clock and crackle of the fire while you read or knit or, 'oh no, we have a snoring person again,'" says St. Onge. "It truly is a haven for those that visit."


History Lesson

Mackinac Island Public Library has been housed in several locations through the years.

"The first library on Mackinac Island (other than a small one in the Thomas Ferry School) was started in 1936 by the Daughters of the American Revolution (D.A.R.)," says St. Onge. "It was started in the Clerks Quarters, of the John Jacob Astor House by Mrs. Rosa R. Webb. That building was torn down in 1957 and the Post Office stands there now."

In 1992, the library's location relocated to its present spot. And another milestone has been technology. "The major change in the library was getting the internet and automated operating system, thus making the old card catalog obsolete," say St. Onge.

Tale of Another City

My second favorite library, the Boston Public Library, is another story entirely, namely because it's located in bright lights, big city Boston (everything being relative) and should be on every traveler's list when visiting the Massachusetts city.

The Boston Public Library (BPL), which debuted in 1848, pioneered the public library service in this country as the first large, free municipal library.

Not surprising in a city that revolutionized America, The Boston Public Library (BPL), which debuted in 1848, pioneered the public library service in this country as the first large, free municipal library; the first public library to lend books; the first to have a branch library; and the first to have a children's room.

And like Mackinac, the library has had several locations. The present Central Library in Copley Square has been home to the library and has served as its headquarters since 1895, when Charles Follen McKim built his 'palace for the people.'

"The BPL has hit many milestones throughout the years," says Bailey Watroba, senior public relations associate, BPL. "We are the first large free municipally funded library in the country. Additionally, in 1870 we opened the first branch library in the United States in East Boston. Today, 26 branches serve the 670,000 residents of the city of Boston. We are also the first library to have a dedicated children's room."

It is the library's lovely courtyard, which opened in 1895, that steals my heart — and many hours of my time — whenever I visit. It is a beauty, with a centerpiece fountain. In fact, in 1986, the National Park Service designated the McKim building a National Historic Landmark, citing it as "the first outstanding example of Renaissance Beaux-Arts Classicism in America with murals by John Singer Sargent and other celebrated artists.

It has also been an unofficial campus for many of the city's urban colleges through the decades. It still is, as well as for "lifelong learners," says Watroba.

"Today's libraries are thriving epicenters of civic engagement."

"When travelers come to the Boston Public Library, they aren't just coming to see a beautiful, historical building," says Watroba, "the experience should also leave them feeling heartened that today's libraries are thriving epicenters of civic engagement."

Likewise, the experience of visiting any local library when traveling — whether it be located on a tiny, carless island or in a big town like Boston — also enriches visitors with local history, culture and a spiritual connection to a place that trolley tours and shiny tourist attractions don't always impart.

Laurie Bain Wilson
Laurie Bain Wilson's work has appeared in Real Simple, Working Mother, OpenTable, Travel Channel, CNNTravel, Eat This, Chowhound, Parents, Salon, Wine Enthusiast, VinePair, New York Times and longtime correspondent at The Boston Globe. Read More
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