Starting a new chapter | News, Sports, Jobs – The Adirondack Daily Enterprise

No Comments

Former Saranac Lake Free Library Director Peter Benson wore his “retirement shirt” to return some books to his former workplace on the first day of his retirement Tuesday. After 10 years at the helm of the library, he handed the reins over to Jacob Widrick this week. Benson plans to spend his retirement on his bike, playing guitar and picking up photography.
(Enterprise photo — Aaron Cerbone)

SARANAC LAKE — Peter Benson couldn’t stay away from the library for long. After retiring from his decade-long post as director of the Saranac Lake Free Library on Sunday, he was back among the bookshelves on Tuesday, chatting with employees, talking about books and telling stories.

With years of consuming stories comes a knack for telling them, too.

Emma Galeotti, at the front desk, wasn’t surprised to see Benson in the library on his first official day of retirement. At a goodbye gathering for Benson on Monday, she told him, “I’ll see you tomorrow!” She was right.

Library love

Benson never planned to be a library director, but he didn’t have much of a plan at all when he moved to Saranac Lake in 1977.

“I had a high-school diploma, a pickup truck, a job and a day-pack full of rock climbing gear,” he wrote in a letter to the editor in the Enterprise last week.

Benson worked at Eagle Island Youth Camp for decades, and when the camp closed in 2008, he didn’t know what to do. His daughter suggested he get a library degree.

“That seemed like a good idea. So I did,” Benson said.

He doesn’t really know why she suggested that — maybe because he always brought her to the library and he’s an eclectic reader himself — but he’s glad she did.

In 2009, at 55, he earned his Masters of Library and Information Science from the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa.

Benson worked for several years under former SLFL Director Betsy Whitefield, then at North Country Community College as an academic librarian. When Whitefield died in 2012, he applied for the SLFL job and was hired.

Benson loves the Saranac Lake Free Library. He said the staff are knowledgeable, the board is supportive, everyone is involved in the community and the community is vibrant.

When he travels, he always swings by the local library to see what theirs looks like.

“Saranac Lake stacks up really well,” Benson said.

The library gets around 700 visitors a week, he said.

Benson handed the SLFL reins over to Jacob Widrick on Monday. He said he has faith in Widrick to bring the library into the future.

Centralized information

Benson said people don’t always realize that the library is there to provide information — and more importantly, access to that information — to the public, no matter what it is. He said he’s fielded questions like: What fossils are found around here? Who are the local legislators? What’s the latest COVID information? What native Americans lived around here? What did the night sky look like on June 14, 2022?

Sometimes people are reluctant to come in for sensitive information, he said — maybe they’re looking for information on grieving to help kids through a tough death in the family. Benson said the library staff help without judgement.

And the information they provide is more personal, specific, thorough and unbiased than looking around on the internet.

“You can find lots of information online. Whether or not it’s accurate is a different matter,” Benson said.

If someone wants to know, “What did Abraham Lincoln think about slavery?” Benson said they can find YouTube videos on it. But he said there are questions left — Who is producing that video? What are their goals?

A librarian can provide the resources to help a search, finding reliable places to look and pointing searches toward experts instead of pundits.

Benson remembers the day the Mueller report on former President Donald Trump’s dealings with Russia came out. The report was released electronically and Benson said SLFL got it up on their Facebook page within 20 minutes.

“That day, I felt we had met the definition of what a library is supposed to do,” he said. “We were providing real-time information for people.”

What is Peter reading?

Benson was always a library user and his mother became a librarian later in her life. He said working at a library expanded his recreational reading.

“What I read in my spare time became far more reaching,” Benson said.

He remembers reading “Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter” when he started at the library.

“Now, I’ve got to tell you, I would have never read that book had I not been the director,” Benson said with a laugh. “But it was on the best-seller list … and it was an enjoyable read.”

In recent years, he said the number of authors who are people of color or native Americans have expanded greatly. He wouldn’t have read some of them if he hadn’t been reading about their work in book review publications.

Currently, he’s reading “The Shape of Water,” a book a patron told him to read about a detective in Sicily. It’s not a recent release, so he probably would never have picked it up, but he’s enjoying reading about Inspector Montalbano solving mysteries, while learning about wine, food and Sicilian culture all the way.

Benson said that’s what he likes most about the library community, that it opens him up to new books. He said he always scheduled himself to work at the front desk as often as possible.

Sure, it’s important for the library director to speak with the public, but he really enjoyed the fact that he “never knew who was going to walk in the door.”

He got to interact with lots of different people, “because the library is open to everyone.”

“The thing about the library is there’s no expectation that you have to spend money when you come in,” Benson said.

Getting a library card is free, he pointed out, and people don’t even need a card to use the computers, chat with staff or read newspapers.

The Saranac Lake Free Library is an association library chartered by New York state. Benson said around 66% of its budget comes from taxes collected by the Saranac Lake Central School District, which are approved each year in a vote on a proposition on the ballot alongside the school district’s budget vote and the board of education election.

The rest of the library’s revenue comes from membership drives, appeals for donations and book fairs. Benson’s excited that the SLFL book fair is returning again this August after two years of being cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Benson was asked for some book recommendations. He said people should check out the new fiction and new non-fiction sections.

“There’s always going to be something there for somebody,” he said.

Recently, he has been reading the “Walt Longmire Mysteries” series about a sheriff in Wyoming. It’s an “old-school western set in modern times,” he said.

“You’re not dissapointed by the delivery of justice by Walt Longmire,” Benson said. He loves satisfying endings.

Fines and guilt

Benson was asked if he ever got overdue fines.

“Absolutely,” he said.

He always got fines. He thought he was the worst person in the world for his $0.90 fines. But when he became the director and saw the tabs some people have racked up, he felt better.

But that sense of guilt is something the library is looking to get rid of entirely.

The SLFL did away with fines for children several years ago, and then altogether when the coronavirus pandemic started.

“That’s the direction libraries are going in now,” Benson said. “Fines tend to keep people from returning to the library. If you do away with the fines then people come back, and the goal is to get people in the library.”

He said they haven’t had trouble with people holding onto books forever. The people who habitually return books late still do so and SLFL accepts donations in lieu of fines.

“People return a book, they know it’s late and they insist on giving you money,” Benson said. “Because they feel guilty! … They felt better once they ponied up.”

Retirement on two wheels

Benson said he’s not moving away. He and his wife, Beth Benson, moved to Saranac Lake because they love the area.

In his goodbye letter in the Enterprise, he said there’s a number of things he still wants to do. Specifically, there’s a couple of long bike rides that require a lot of training he’s trying to conquer.

“I’m just going to say it. I’m 68 years old,” Benson said. “At 68 years old it’s really hard for me to get up at 5:30 in the morning and get on my bike and put on two dozen miles before I go to work.”

In a press release about his retirement from the library, he said, “I plan on sleeping in each morning until I wake up. No more alarm clocks!”

But old habits die hard. He still woke up at his regular time on Tuesday morning.

Today’s breaking news and more in your inbox

Categories: books

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.