NORTH KINGSTOWN – Susan Aylward remembers her first library experience accompanying her father on Sundays to the grand Greek revival building on Brown Street, where he was the custodian for 27 years.
“There was a wonderful smell; a combination of the books and the wax on the floors. It’s a comforting smell from my childhood.”
While her dad, the late Thomas Aylward – later the town’s fire chief – cleaned the rooms, Susan sat at the desk front desk.
“I played with the [circulation] cards,” she recalls. “I’m sure they were all out of order when the librarians came to work.”
She also has fond memories of librarian Regina Leeper – who would become her mentor – and her vast accumulation of recordings.
“There were headphones to wear and the records were classical music or opera. My father would put one on and go off to clean. I always picked Aida because there was a really pretty woman” on the cover.
Susan’s official relationship with the North Kingstown Free Library began in 1975 when she was a volunteer. She was hired the next year and counts among her greatest professional tasks getting the North Kingstown facility automated after it became part of the statewide CLAN (Cooperating Libraries Automated Network) system.
After working her way steadily up the ladder, she became director in the summer of 2002. Now Susan is retiring and will submit her paperwork to the state tomorrow; her last day is June 25.
“My first day at work was the day the library moved into the new building” on Boone Street, she notes.
A North Kingstown native, Susan earned a bachelor of arts degree in English and a master’s in library science from the University of Rhode Island; when she received her doctorate in English from URI, she became the state’s only public librarian with a PhD.
Her dissertation on Providence native David Plante, an acclaimed author and iconic professor at Columbia University, had longtime benefits: they became close friends and, last year, he gave the North Kingstown library all his manuscripts – published and unpublished – as well as his personal book collection.
She confesses that, after attending an insightful lecture about Plante’s work, she was “dazzled and read everything he’d written.”
Susan says she’s retiring because, “for a long time I thought I would die on the job. I hoped to break Annie Meritheu’s record; she was librarian for 40 years – back when my mother was a kid.
“I woke up one morning in February and thought ‘I’ve been here 35 years; I’ve had an impact. It’s time for new blood, new enthusiasm for the future. I grew up here. It’s been more than a job or a career: it’s been my life.”
Susan is confident the top-notch staff is prepared for the major changes that loom.
“It’s a very great responsibility,” she says. “The library is becoming more community-oriented. Books will be less and less important.”
Martha Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .