The library? It is Miss Walsh
The Library? It's Miss Walsh
Librarian and library have been as inseparable as body and soul ever since. Inquire about the library in Cumberland today and you are told: "See Miss Walsh. She is the library." And further inquiry reveals the library to be an integral, personal part of life in the city.
In the beginning, there were 1650 books donated by 56 residents. Another 56 persons contributed $5,000 to get the institution started.
Today there are 45,000 books, about one apiece for the population. Twelve thousand, or more than a fourth of the population, are library members.
And today, at 55, pleasant, patient, self effacing Mary G. Walsh, who will talk about anything but herself, says: "The record is really not very good. We haven't made as much progress as we should have."
But what is the record? Cumberland, one of the oldest cities in Maryland, has had a library for only 25 years. The town began as a trading post, became populated by laborers who built the roads, railroads and canal when it was known, because of the great mountain pass here, as the "Gateway to the West." Lusty section hands, mule drivers and lumberjacks had no use for books.
Super saleswoman Called For
Civilization pushed westward, industry sprang up in the valley of the Potomac, a laboring population lingered. The 1919 effort to start a Cumberland library was not the first. Similar attempts were made in 1873, 1884 and 1901. All had failed.
History and background dictated that the Cumberland librarian of 25 years ago would have to be a super-saleswoman if the project were to survive. Mary Walsh measured up.
Her job became her life. She went into schools, churches, clubs, and, to get to the great mass of the industrial population, she offered her personal assistance and the library facilities to the trade unions.
The library is open nine hours a day, six days a week, plus two hours a night for five nights. Mary Walsh now has three full-timer and three part-time assistants. But every day, and most nights, she is there. She has established branch libraries in two different sections of the city.
Teachers have been encouraged to bring their classes to the library for instruction in its use. Starting with the youngsters, Miss Walsh has built up a sound reading public.
Friday Is Storytelling Day
Twenty years ago, the librarian started a. story-telling hour for children on Friday afternoons. The assignment has been hers most of the time ever since. At times she has trained assistants to tell stories, but they have always married and left. She alone remains wedded to her work.
Children may join the library when they are able to sign a membership card. They look forward to the day. Not long ago a boy of 6 assured the librarian he could write his name, struggled for several minutes with the signature, proudly presented his card. The dotted line had been ignored. Covering the whole card was the one word-—"Henry."
"It was so cute," the librarian says, her blue eyes registering merriment. "Henry surely became a member."
In 1934 the library outgrew its original quarters, moved to a fine old colonial structure directly opposite the Allegany county courthouse on Washington street. An auditorium upstairs is the only civic and cultural center the city knows, and only because of Miss Walsh's encouragement. She welcomes everybody from the Boy Scouts to the Daughters of the American Revolution. Literary and theater groups, and the Music and Arts Club, meet here.
Place For Exhibiting Art
Cumberland has no art gallery. But now there are regular exhibits of paintings and water colors, ceramics and sculpture, in the auditorium.
In 1940, when the local unit of the typographical union wanted to celebrate the five hundredth anniversary of printing, and its own fiftieth anniversary, Miss Walsh not only arranged for the event to be held at the library, but served on the union committee planning it.
Mary Walsh's affable personality has made every Cumberlander feel free to phone the j library for the answer to any question. "How much lumber does it take to build a coal bin?" a householder asks. A nervous, 16-yearold voice inquires: "Is it all right for a girl to send her sick boy friend some flowers?"
Hundreds of calls begin with the words, "We're having an argument and I've got a bet down. ..."
"We never find out how much is down,'" she says with a sigh, picking up the slang, "and we never get a cut."
Years ago she weathered the crossword puzzle craze. Now she is suffering from a severe attack of radio mystery men, women and tunes. When "Miss Hush" was in her heyday, "people were desperate—didn't even want to leave the library at closing time."
A Genealogical Headquarters
The "Gateway to the West" now operates in reverse. Letters and phone calls from every section of America beyond the Alleghenies request information about ancestors who once paused here on the trek westward.
One question has stumped Miss Walsh. A soldier wanted to know why army chevrons turned down, those of the Navy up. She found that the word chevron was a heraldic term, stemming from the French word meaning "rafter." But that was all. So she sent a query to the Library of Congress. After much delay, an answer came back—"This is an interesting question, but we are unable to provide an explanation. Obviously, according to heraldry, no chevron should turn up."
A sailor finally settled the question to Miss Walsh's personal satisfaction. She asked why, since his chevrons represented the rafters of a roof, they didn't turn down. "That's easy," he said, "a ship is the only roof a sailor knows, but it's always under his feet. How's that?"
"Good enough for me," said the sedate little librarian.
Talk to anyone in Cumberland-about Mar? Walsh and you get a new slant on her. And it's always a good one.
The Cumberland Free Public Library is something of a court of human relations. Those who are burdened, troubled, desperate, like to see Miss Walsh privately in her office. She comforts, guides, advises, digs up technical details, directs the unfortunate to proper sources of relief. Says one aged woman: "Miss Walsh always helps. Just talking to her takes a load off your mind."
You find Mary Walsh addressing Jewish, Protestant and Catholic groups. All love her. She is deeply religious—one might almost say pious—herself. But to her "the library is a forum of knowledge, and both sides of every question must be made available to every one."
At times, reviewing a new book for a literary group, her head tilts to one side and a smile appears—a gesture that usually means "It was a struggle, but I swallowed my principles long enough to digest this book for you."
More Looking Into Communism
Healthiest sign she has noticed among readers lately is that non-Communists are taking a greater interest in Communist literature in an effort to know more about the current menace to democracy.
Public service seems to run in Miss Walsh's family. Her brother, William C. Walsh, was formerly Attorney General of Maryland. Another brother, Maryknoll Bishop James Walsh, has done missionary work among the Chinese for years and is now in Shanghai. When asked recently if he would return to the United States following the victory of the Chinese Communists, he replied simply: "Communists have to be converted too."
Twenty-five years ago his sister took a somewhat similar attitude toward the library resisting public of Cumberland. She now has 12,000 card-carrying converts, plus hundreds of others who just drop in to enjoy the warmth of the library's personality.
Public libraries, Maryland, Allegany County; Allegany county Library System (Md.), Anniversaries.
Allegany County (Md,), 1960-2010