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August 28, 2020

In Copenhagen, 'Little Libraries' bring big opportunities

Author: Liza Frenette
copenhagen little libraries

It’s a different way to walk the beat.

These days, Copenhagen retired teacher Deb Barnard Strianese makes the rounds once a week to check on and restock three new Little Libraries she helped bring into being in her own very little town.

Her story began, as most do, with an idea. She thought about how her town did not have a library. As an elementary teacher, she knows first-hand how students can lose a lot of reading skills in summer, a situation heightened by not having a public library. Little Libraries, she realized, could serve people year-round.

“It was definitely needed in this town,” said Strianese. “I was retiring and I wanted to leave a mark.”

With the pandemic, the school library has not been open since mid-March. The closest public libraries are about a half hour away, and the nearest bookstore is about an hour and a half away. Ordering books online is tough as many in this rural Lewis County area do not have internet access, and many do not have the money to buy books. No one could have predicted how much these Little Libraries would be needed, with their sheltering roofs and bounty of treasure.

In her very own chapter one, Strianese downloaded free building plans from Little Library, and approached Copenhagen Teachers Association colleague Scott Wilson about having his woodworking students build the libraries. He loved the idea, and students got to work with hammers, nails, sanders and saws.

In chapter two, she asked art history teacher Ginny Hovendon if students would want to paint the Little Libraries. Oh yes, they did.

Out came the paint and the imagination. Students became the illustrators for Strianese’s project. They painted in swirls Van Gogh’s Starry, Starry Night on one Little Library. The next Little Library become a homage to Dutch artist Piet Mondrian, using cobalt blue and bright yellow sharp-edged abstract shapes. The third library in the trio became a work of art reminiscent of the images of food artist Wayne Thebeaux.

While students labored, Strianese approached property owners to get permission to locate the Little Libraries. One is at the site of the former public library in town, long closed. Starry, Starry Night is in the yard of retiree Cyndy Pridell, former second grade teacher. The third library is in front of St. Mary’s Church.

“With everything the kids are dealing with these days, I think it’s really important for them to be reading and processing,” she said.

Strianese began collecting donations of books from colleagues, and the TA has provided books from First Books Inc. through NYSUT and the American Federation of Teachers.

“When Deb's project was done, she sent me a picture of each of the Little Libraries in their new homes throughout the community and asked what we could do to help. The only question we had for her was how many books did she need!” said John Cain, Copenhagen TA president.

“I’ve got bins and bins of books in my garage,” said Strianese, laughing.

She visited each elementary class to let youngsters know about the Little Libraries, and how they could freely take a book or leave a book. She gave each student a bookmark, and gummy worms to symbolize their own role as “bookworms.”

“I’m an obsessive reader,” said Strianese, who taught second grade at Copenhagen for 10 years.  “I hope I’ve instilled my love of reading to students. I read aloud to my classes every day.”

Before returning to her hometown area to teach a decade ago, she taught for 18 years in Westchester — a bustling district outside of New York City with two high schools and five elementary schools. It’s a far distance and vastly different from the farm country she now calls home. Copenhagen has one K-12 school.

Her favorite books for students? Elephant and Piggy books by Mo Willems for first grade, Beverly Cleary’s Ramona books for second grade, and Gary Paulsen’s My Life in Dog Years for third grade. Also, a lot of poetry.

Once the Little Libraries were completed, Strianese erected them with the help of a friend, pounding in posts to secure them in the ground.

“Our Reading is Fundamental Program led by CTA member Krisha Greene and the local union work very closely together to try and get books into the community,” said Cain. “I have been fortunate enough to be involved in getting First Book books. We really took advantage of the opportunity a few years ago when we became a LAP (NYSUT Local Action Project) local.”

Between sorting through donated books and restocking the Little Libraries, Strianese keeps active gardening and overseeing the overhaul of an older home she bought. And reading, of course. She’s reading The Passionate Nomad about a woman traveling solo through the Middle East, and she just finished a book about the 1980s fire of a historic central library in Los Angeles. The title? “Library.”

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