FALMOUTH – Jill Erickson, book lover, recently removed an accumulated 30 years worth of resources from the Falmouth Public Library. How? She retired.
Those resources seemed almost like a permanent part of the collection to many people who love the library, but those resources are no longer readily available to library patrons.
Erickson, the longtime head of reference and adult services at Falmouth Library, is the owner of the well-read brain that possesses those 30 years worth of research, accumulated knowledge and lessons from a curious life well lived.
“That kind of knowledge and that kind of experience, that is not replaceable right now,” said Sue Henken, a reference librarian who has worked at the library with Erickson for the past three years. “The rest of us are going to have to learn.”
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A Question For The Reference Desk
I had a Dewey Decimal system question. I asked around. Where would a hypothetical book be filed about, say, a beloved local librarian who has recently retired after decades on the job?
Biographies? Books about libraries? I was led to 920s or 025s, but I was also emphatically told that Jill Erickson would have the answer.
So I asked by email.
Erickson replied, “Definitely the 920s, but I also think it could be turned into a novel!”
From the beginning: Books! Books! Books!
Of course Erickson remembers her first book.
“What a miracle it was,” Erickson said of her experience reading ‘The Cat In The Hat’ at age 4 in the “can’t imagine anyplace better to grow up” town of Plainview, New York on Long Island. She was in her bedroom with her best friend, Lisa Domenico when the miracle happened.
Plainview was, she said, one of those post World War II towns where all the houses were built at the same time and looked the same way. “All the men were GI’s,” she said. “It was a homogenous neighborhood in a lot of ways.”
Her mother was a home economics teacher. Her father worked in inventory for Macy’s and Jordan Marsh department stores. She has an older brother and older sister. Erickson was born in 1956. “It was a different world,” she said. “For me it was ideal.”
Plainview was, by her telling, a jump rope, bicycle riding, swimming-in-the-town-pool kind of town. “I always had kids to play with,” she said.
And best of all, when Erickson was young the town built “an amazing new library. My friend Lisa Domenico and I walked to the library every Saturday.”
Why? “There were books,” said Erickson. “What more do you need?”
While Lisa Domenico played a key role in Erickson’s early childhood connection to books, her neighborhood gave her an interesting literary connection. “My next door neighbor, and I’m not kidding, this is really true, was Thomas Pynchon’s uncle,” she said.
“I’m not a big Thomas Pynchon (author of ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ and other books) fan, but his uncle was a really nice guy,” she recalled.
Her brother David, older by six years, who now lives in Northampton, said, “We learned to read before we went to school.” He learned to read, he recalled his parents saying, “off of cereal boxes,” and, he recalled, Jill, “always had her nose in a book.”
“I didn’t find out until I was in the fourth grade that I needed glasses,” said Erickson. “I couldn’t see far away. The fact that I couldn’t actually see beyond the book made books really important.”
A Mary Poppins Trauma – “It shows you why I became a librarian”
As a young girl, Erickson was already a voracious reader. Babar the Elephant, Dr. Suess and so much more caught her attention. “I absolutely fell in love with the Mary Poppins books,” she said.
So when the movie came out with Julie Andrews, when Erickson was about eight years old, she was excited. Until she saw the movie.
“That was when I realized that movies can destroy books,” said Erickson. “That version of Mary Poppins was somebody’s dream. It had nothing to do with the books.”
“It shows you why I became a librarian,” she said.
Norwell, Massachusetts, The New England Square Dance Caller, & Bard College
In the summer after Erickson finished sixth grade, her family moved to Norwell, Massachusetts.
“The first place I wanted to go was the library,” she said.
“The librarian at the junior high school was a man, and he was really good. He taught me the Dewey Decimal System. That was the moment I thought, ‘Gosh, this is something I could do.’”
“The first place I wanted to go was the library,”
When Erickson was in high school, she volunteered at the Norwell Public Library.
Erickson’s friends growing up, according to her brother, were “definitely a bookish crowd.” She was also very involved in theater, having been voted “most theatrical” her senior year in high school.
Her high school English teacher, Dan Wallace, who she is still in touch with her decades later, recalled his former student as loving the library. She understood, said Wallace, that libraries are a public service. Erickson understood, said Wallace, “the sort of schmaltzy talk of temples of learning and stuff like that.”
“It’s a sacred space,” Wallace said of a public library. “You go and a certain activity happens there. It is based in curiosity and wanting to find answers.”
Erickson told Cape Cod Wave that she is “possessed by public libraries.”
At the library, said Wallace, “Jill loved the interaction with people, and loved the adventure of finding stuff out. And she was very good at it.”
In high school, Erickson worked with Wallace twice a week on an independent study program she was doing on 19th-century Russian novels. “She was very self motivated,” recalled Wallace. “She was not somebody looking for an easy assignment. She wanted to read deeply into a rich literary tradition.”
When Erickson graduated, her family’s finances were tight since her older sister was already in college. So Erickson took a year off from her education.
I needed a job so I worked as news editor for the New England Square Dance Caller. It was one of the best jobs I ever had,” she said. The editor’s wife would bring the staff home-made cookies and cranberry juice every morning, she recalled.
After a year she started classes at Bard College in Annandale-On-Hudson. She spent her junior year of college at UMass Amherst, and then went back to Bard for her senior year and her degree in literature.
“When I graduated from Bard,” she said, “the thing I most wanted to do was get as far away from my family as I could, and to go to library school.”
Eugene, Oregon – “It was a great adventure.”
“I definitely wanted to get away from my family, just because it was what I needed to do at that moment in time,” said Erickson. “I wanted to be out on my own. Being the youngest of three, everybody was always looking after me. I was ready to look out for myself.”
She made her way west to Eugene, Oregon after a short stop in San Francisco to visit her older sister, who was living in that city. Erickson chose to go to Eugene because of the library school at the University of Oregon.
“I was doing this by myself, not with other people,” she said. “It was a great adventure.”
“I knew Eugene had this women’s community, and it was a hippie kind of place, but not too hippie. It was not like San Francisco,” she said.
When she arrived, she had hardly any money and no job, she said. “Two days later, I had a place to live and a job,” she said.
But, said Erickson, “by the time I got to Eugene, the University of Oregon had just closed their library school.”
Still, she stayed and took several odd jobs. “I started at a pizza place and lasted two days cutting up onions.” She then took a job as a secretary in the office of the nonprofit American Cancer Society. “I scheduled people to get picked up for cancer treatments,” she said.
Next she worked in the career placement office of the University of Oregon, but after a year and a half, Oregon ran its course in her life. “I was homesick for the East Coast. Some fellow had just broken my heart. It was time for me to leave,” she said.
She returned to her parents’ house in Norwell and then took a job as a secretary in a trade newspaper called Electronic News. She moved to Beacon Hill.
It was not a great job. “There were creepy men working in that office,” she recalled. She did not stay in that job long.
She took some time off of work and followed a college friend, who was in the Peace Corps teaching woodworking to kids, to Marrakesh, Morocco.
When she arrived in Marrakesh, it was not what she expected. Her friend and others there were “in the Peace Corps, but in the city in the Peace Corps. They had a maid that cleaned their clothing. It was not how I imagined the Peace Corps to be.”
But her friend, being “a very eccentric kind of guy said I had to get out of Marrakesh and see the real Morocco. So we went to a village in the middle of essentially nowhere,” said Erickson.
“Two guys agreed to let us spend the night in their house,” she said. Her friend knew enough Arabic to arrange the lodging with the men. “I most remember they really wanted to feed us. Some kind of stew… I can’t remember much about the stew.”
In the village, she remembered that men and women were often separated. So when her friend was with the men, Erickson found herself with a group of women speaking Arabic. “They were probably talking about me, asking why is this crazy American woman sitting in this room,” she said.
Looking back at that solo trip to Marrakesh, she said, “In retrospect, was I out of my mind for doing this? I can only imagine what my parents were thinking… I am surprised they didn’t object more than they might have.”
The trip, she said, was a “big adventure. It did open my eyes to travel. I had relatives in Wisconsin, relatives in Alabama, but this was different… You could do a whole article on my trip to Marrakesh.”
When Erickson returned from Marrakesh, she had a job offer waiting. It had begun to materialize just before that trip.
One evening, while working for the Electronic News, Erickson went to a fiction reading that changed her life.
After the reading, Erickson corresponded by letter with the novelist, who invited her to meet for tea and the novelist also mentioned that she worked at the Boston Athenaeum and asked if Erickson would like a tour.
“I fell in love with the Athenaeum as soon as the doors were open,” said Erickson. “There were flowers everywhere. It was the most spectacular library I ever set foot in.”
The Atheneum was founded in 1807, and the current building was completed in 1849. According to the Atheneum website, it is “one of the most distinguished independent libraries and cultural institutions in the United States.”
Soon after her initial visit, Erickson heard from her new friend, the writer, who told Erickson of a job opening at the Athenaeum.
Erickson applied and got the job. “The job was typing catalog cards for the paper catalog. That’s what I did all day long, in this spectacular setting.” She was also attending Simmons College, studying for her Masters in Library Science while working there.
“Eventually I became the head of reference,” she said. Eventually, it turns out, was not a very long time period. She became the head of reference at the revered Boston Athenaeum in her late 20s. She stayed in the job for nine years.
One Athenaeum patron who remembers Erickson is Daniel A. Cohen, author and Associate Professor of History & Director of Graduate Studies at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.
In the 1980s, Cohen was working in Boston on his Ph.D. dissertation about a subject that would eventually become a chapter in his subsequent book, ‘Pillars of Salt, Monuments of Grace: New England Crime Literature and the Origins of American Popular Culture, 1674-1860.’
In an email to Cape Cod Wave Magazine, Cohen said he spent several weeks at the Athenaeum “where I took extensive transcriptions of the newspaper stories at a table in the center of the library’s elegant, cathedral-like reading room, under the benevolent supervision of the library’s young, friendly, knowledgeable, and intellectually-engaged reference librarian, Jill E. Erickson.”
At the Athenaeum, Erickson brought “grace, kindness, intellect, and commitment to readers of all types,” wrote Cohen.
Moving To Falmouth – “A perfect match for me.”
After nine years at the Athenaeum, Erickson decided it was time to leave the city. She began looking for options. She knew she wanted to work in a public library, so when the job in Falmouth opened up she applied and got the job.
The library itself, she said, was part of what attracted her to the job. “It was a dream to live in Falmouth in the first place because of the ocean and because of that spectacular library,” said Erickson.
The Falmouth Library Association was founded in 1792, and the Main Library was built in its current location on Main Street in 1901. Ninety years later – on September 3, 1991 to be exact – a new reference librarian joined the staff.
Two years later she became the head of reference and adult services, a job she stayed in for 28 years until her retirement at the end of October. Erickson was not quite sure what to expect when she started working and living in Falmouth.
“I left a whole lot of friends in Boston. They were smart. It was a diverse crowd; they were into theater and art… It was an intellectually interesting place to work, at the Athenaeum,” said Erickson.
“Coming here it was a surprise, I shouldn’t say surprise, that the majority of the workers here were married women with children. And Falmouth was even less diverse than it is now,” she said. “I was like, this is going to be really hard.”
But in fact, she found Falmouth to be a more artistic and intellectually engaging place than it at first seemed. There was theater and the science community and more, especially the library.
“I have really fallen in love with this town. A lot of people fall in love with that library. More than one realtor has said that people have bought a house in town because of that library,” said Erickson.
“It was sort of a perfect match for me,” she said. “I didn’t realize how perfect.”
The Library, The Librarian & The Town
In late November, Erickson received an official certificate of recognition from the Massachusetts House of Representatives thanking her for 30 years of service to the community.
“She is one of the unsung heroes of Falmouth who has quietly improved the lives of people in Falmouth,” said State Representative Dylan Fernandes, (D-Woods Hole).
The library, said Fernandes, “is a place that connects people, especially during the cold winter months that can be really isolating. The library serves as a community space and it connects people with the outside world. It’s something we need in those winter months especially.”
Erickson, as reference librarian, served a crucial role, he said. “She is very involved in the community and cares deeply about Falmouth,” he said. And in her role, said Fernandes, Erickson “served as a town historian of sorts.”
On her final day on the job, as a party for her was beginning in the library, Erickson took the time to take Cape Cod Wave on a brief tour of the library, showing off such architectural wonders as the seal of Falmouth in the skylight dome.
Henken, a reference librarian, said of Erickson, “She ended up being a big expert on Falmouth history.”
“We have a lot of valuable, not very replaceable books on Falmouth history,” said Henken. “People come to us with a lot of very specific research questions about Falmouth and their own history.”
Erickson is well versed in the library’s Falmouth collection, and showed Cape Cod Wave several fascinating local books, including a collection of ‘The Cape and South Shore Blue Book and Social Register,’ published yearly in the 1920s so higher society types would know where each was living in the summer. Names and addresses included the Kennedy family.
She also highlighted an 1858 map book of Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard & Nantucket; “Ring Around The Punch Bowl” – the story of Beebe Woods; a book from 1886 celebrating the 200th anniversary of the incorporation of Falmouth; and “A Gentleman’s Guide To Belvidere Plain” – a neighborhood in Falmouth, coincidentally where Erickson now lives.
It is not the kind of thing one can find on Google, she said.
Erickson “had a very keen sense of information that you can’t get online. She was a good reminder of that for us,” said Henken.
Radio and “the celebrity librarian”
In 2005, when the local public radio station, WCAI approached Falmouth Public Library looking for someone to talk about books over the air, Erickson volunteered after another reference librarian turned it down.
“When she talks about books, there is an enthusiasm that is just infectious.” author Peter Abrahams.
On February 14, 2005, Erickson appeared for the first time on Mindy Todd’s radio show, “The Point”, talking about books for a half hour. “It was only going to be one time,” said Erickson. “For whatever reason, they liked it.”
“In 2006, I was on three times. In 2007, I was on seven times. Eventually, it became every month,” she said. The show later expanded to one hour in length.
“When she got into the public radio thing,” said her brother, David, “I started calling her the celebrity librarian.”
In 2012, after being featured in a three-part WCAI series on libraries, Erickson was even interviewed on a national show on NPR.
The preparation for the show, as Peter Abrahams, a local author – aka Spencer Quinn when he’s writing the Chet and Bernie series – who has appeared on The Point with Todd and Erickson many times, noted, is hard work.
Erickson was always very prepared, no matter the subject of the show. And there have been shows about books on many specific topics such as mysteries, birds, Ireland, and banned books. It was “a little bit of everything,” she said. She would blog about the show afterwards, with links to all the books.
Her final regularly scheduled show, in early November, was on books about radio. Erickson said she will continue to appear on the show occasionally, but not monthly. She is looking forward to having more time now to read for pure pleasure rather than preparing for a show each month, she said.
Abrahams said of Erickson, “She’s terrific on the air. And she was just as good or better at her job. Her devotion to books and reading is so powerful that I think it has an influence on what her listeners read.”
“When she talks about books, there is an enthusiasm that is just infectious,” said Abrahams.
Infectious enthusiasm for reading. That’s it, of course. That joy of discovery she felt back in Plainview, New York sitting in her childhood bedroom with Lisa Domenico after reading her first book has never left her. It oozes from her persona, whether on the radio or in person.
Of course, on the radio she reached a wide audience. “For one thing, I love to read,” said Erickson. “To actually be talking on the radio is a dream come true. The actual time that I’m on the radio, it’s euphoria.”
“It’s like theater,” she said. “It’s a live show, just like live theater. People would call us, about what book they loved.” And afterwards, she often got notes from listeners. “I have been blown away by how many people listen,” she said.
“People who I don’t even know were listening every month,” said Erickson. “What a lovely thing… that’s the joy of radio. You don’t know who is out there. You chat for an hour and then it’s over.”
“It’s a wonderful gift to be able to read, and a wonderful gift to share that,” she said.
The Changing Role of The Reference Librarian
Falmouth Library, when Erickson arrived, like all libraries had traditional paper card catalogs. Within a few years, technology has changed that and so much more.
In her early years at the Falmouth Library, “literally, people would call us and ask for recipes,” she said. Indeed, she worked in the reference department of a small town library. The job was to help people find information.
The questions were as random and varied as the human mind. From “Why is a blue moon called blue?” to specific research questions on any of a universe worth of subjects, to “Would you forge my mother’s signature? I got in trouble at school.”
Erickson said, “We answered them all.” And no, she did not forge the signature.
“One that really stands out was basically somebody came up to the reference desk and asked if you could poison milk, and if so would someone taste it.”
She laughed recalling that. “Were they writing a mystery novel or planning a murder?”
And while Erickson could do research like a professional librarian, she also made a point to incrementally build her knowledge.
“When I first came to Falmouth Public Library, I put this task upon myself that I would every month read something that I would never normally read just to help people who come in the library looking for a recommendation.”
She wanted to be sure to have knowledge of, for instance, popular novelists that wouldn’t normally appeal to her. She tried to read at least one so she had some knowledge of the author, she said.
“One that I thought I was going to hate was Dean Koontz, a book called, ‘False Memory.’ It had a madman controlling his psychiatric patients with haiku. It was a revelation when he used haiku as a plot point,” she said.
And one of her favorite books is “The Giant’s House,” by Elizabeth McCracken. The plot, said Erickson, “is a giant falls in love with a librarian. It is essentially set in a library.”
While she is passionate about public libraries, in particular “she has a tremendous love of reference work,” said Matthew Person, librarian for the shared library of Marine Biological Laboratory and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Person is Erickson’s life partner. Yes, two librarians are a couple, having found something in common.
“Being a librarian is a community-building job. You are answering questions that people have,” said Person. “That creates relationships.”
“Libraries have changed so much over the years,” said Person. “It has a lot to do with technology. People needed libraries differently 30 years ago than they do today.”
“There is always a need in communities for some entity which helps people in so many ways,” said Person. “In terms of literature, in terms of the most esoteric things. Answers to who they are through genealogy, how to fill out a form, how to fill out taxes, what literature should I read?’
“You don’t go to town hall to answer those questions. The only place you can do that, in three dimensions, is the library,” he said. “You are with an actual person who is working with you.”
And yet there are places to get answers. Most people carry what they think are all the answers in the palm of their hand – their phone attached to Google.
Erickson said, “I think the general feeling, even among librarians, and I quote, that Google is good enough. I think that’s crap, and I think that people should get the best information they can get and I don’t think it’s because it comes up as an ad at the top of a Google search.”
“They are trying to sell you something and reference librarians are trying to get you the best information possible,” she said.
Still, she said, reference librarians are often now asked for help with technology. “It’s a weird time for reference librarians,” said Erickson. “Reference librarians are able to help people with any question they have, but the questions have changed considerably.”
A Life Well-Lived + Edward Gorey’s Cat
Erickson who long wrote a blog for the library about any number of things, from the most recent radio show to one of her more popular posts, “The Curious Case of the Misquotation” about words popularly attributed to famous people who, in fact, did not say those words.
But it was her goodbye post that spoke of her role in the job and credited her “’magnificent reference professor at Simmons College, Allen Smith, who said to all of his students: “In order to be really good as a librarian, everything counts towards your work, every play you go see, every concert you hear, every trip you take, everything you read, everything you know. I don’t know of another occupation like that. The more you know, the better you’re going to be.”
“That very much explains the type of librarian she is,” said Person. “You could not separate the individual from the professional. She was always serving the community, and always serving her profession.”
“She’s very artistically inclined,” said Person. “She’s always done artwork, collage work.” And theater. She loves theater, he said. “She likes a lot of different things.”
She traveled to Europe, South America and more, said David Erickson.
Also she likes cats, and Edward Gorey.
“She got custody of Edward Gorey’s cat when he died,” said David Erickson.
The cat’s name was Jane.
Erickson had met the now-deceased famous macabre cartoonist/author/playwright etc., a resident of Yarmouth, when he was staging plays in Buzzards Bay. He later staged plays at the Cotuit Center for the Arts, and even staged a puppet show at Jack’s Outback restaurant in Yarmouth.
She went to a tryout, not really wanting to be on the stage but really wanting to meet Gorey. “I had no intention of being in a show. None whatsoever,” said Erickson.
At an audition, Gorey, first meeting Erickson, asked what she wanted to do, and Erickson said, “I’m here to do whatever needs doing.”
“Hand that woman a broom!” shouted Gorey. A friendship, rooted in humor and more, was born.
Gorey, turning serious, asked her to get up on stage and read. “When Edward Gorey asks you to get up on stage and read, you do it,” she said.
She was cast in his show, “Chinese Gossip.” There would be more shows. “Once Edward saw something he could use, he wanted you back,” she said. She was in a number of his shows at Theater On The Bay.
“It was all really fun,” said Erickson. “But it was really a challenge. When the playwright sits in the audience every night, if you get one word wrong he’s going to notice.”
Gorey passed away in 2000. Gorey had six cats, which Erickson immediately wondered about. Checking in with a representative of the famous author, she offered to take a cat. “How soon can you get here?” she was asked.
Jane the cat, once owned by Edward Gorey, lived with Person and Erickson for nine years. “We fell in love with her and she fell in love with us,” said Erickson.
And there was no economic burden. Anybody that took a cat got all vet bills paid for by Gorey’s estate. “Jane had lawyers in New York. Yes, the cat had lawyers,” said Erickson.
What is a librarian?
In Erickson’s case, she is the little girl proudly finishing the “Cat In The Hat” in her childhood bedroom; the young adult traveling alone to Marrakesh, Morocco; and a poetry judge for the 2014 Massachusetts Book Awards. She contains multitudes.
“She is an incredible public figure in the community,” said Fernandes.
“She is a spectacular correspondent,” said Wallace, her former English teacher. “She has distinct note paper and ink color and wonderful handwriting,” he said.
Of course, the letters are most often about books,” said Wallace. “A pattern comes to mind. She will share what she is reading, often about what she has learned from it.” And he will respond in kind, he said.
“She understands reading as a portal to living life,” said Wallace. “Not as a sort of external enterprise, but a living creative affirmation of the joy of being alive.”
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Hey tim great read about jill