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Reading on the Run



Published June 25, 2003 at 4:00 p.m.

Nobody's interested in the large-print editions of Hamlet or Hangman's Gulch. On a warm June afternoon, neither Shakespeare nor tales of the Wild West seem to excite residents of Heineberg Senior Housing in Burlington. Few of them even browse the diverse assortment of books that Barbara Shatara has displayed on three long tables at the New North End complex. The 37-year-old librarian, who coordinates outreach programs for the Fletcher Free Library, waits patiently.

Edna, who won't divulge her age or last name, prefers mysteries and spy novels. When Shatara suggests Swag by Elmore Leonard, the older woman is dissuaded by the image of a gun on its dark cover. But Margaret Truman's Murder in Foggy Bottom intrigues the older woman, a retired WAC who once lived at the "scene of the crime" -- Washington, D.C.

After selecting several volumes, Edna talks with Shatara about recent government initiatives that might adversely affect the elderly. There's plenty of time for chatting. With few other patrons sorting through the selections, this once-a-month delivery to Heineberg is unusually quiet. The Harlequin Romances, generally the most popular category, are left untouched. And there's not a single taker for Hello From Heaven, the subtitle of which queries, "Have you been contacted by a loved one who has died?"

Shatara begins packing up, filling the little red wagon she uses to tote several dozen volumes to and from her white 2002 Chevrolet van. It's retrofitted with a back-door electronic lift to maneuver the heavy load of books. And it can be spotted from a distance: The exterior is painted with fanciful readers, including Goldilocks, Abraham Lincoln and a caged bird looking at The Great Escape, to convey the library's love of all things literary.

SEVEN DAYS: Without ice-cream-truck windows, the van probably doesn't qualify as an actual bookmobile, but do you attract a lot of attention?

BARBARA SHATARA: Oh, yes. Especially when my colleague Coleen Wright, who's from CEDO Ameri-Corps*VISTA, takes it to places where children live. They jump up and down with excitement.

SD: How many people work in the outreach program?

BS: I have five volunteers right now; Coleen has two. My deliveries are primarily to seniors; she concentrates on refugees and new immigrants.

SD: Do you have books in their languages?

BS: Absolutely. For Bosnians, we have Danielle Steele, the entire Harry Potter series and the Lord of the Rings trilogy in Serbo-Croatian. There are contemporary Vietnamese writers for that particular community.

SD: What do English-speaking seniors want?

BS: People tend to read within a certain genre. Most mystery fans will tackle anything, no matter who wrote it. Those who like romance books are often loyal to certain authors. Some folks enjoy literature; they either ask for the latest John Irving or go back and read the classics. In terms of nonfiction, we have patrons who are partial to biographies. One 90-year-old homebound woman I visit, though, reads about politics and globalization.

SD: Do senior citizens' tastes ever surprise you?

BS: Absolutely. I was stunned by the popularity of Michael Moore's Stupid White Men. That's been the most requested of the nonfiction.

SD: It's odd to think that generation would approve of his anti-establishment views and counterculture chutzpah.

BS: I've learned not to take them for granted. One prejudice I had to overcome is the impression that women of my grandmother's age were all stay-at-home wives. These people have had a variety of experiences in their lives.

SD: What about your life? How did you get into this?

BS: In a sense, my first "job" was in elementary school, when I read to younger kids. But I trained as a geologist in college -- I went to the State University of New York in Geneseo, near Rochester -- until I discovered that was too lonely a profession.

SD: All rocks, no humans?

BS: They don't work collaboratively much. At any rate, I was dating the man I eventually married. We ended up living in New York City while he went to law school at Pace University in Westchester. I found work at the law library there from 1990 to 1994. Then, I attended SUNY-Albany for my master's degree in library science. During that time, we were in North Bennington. I had a job in the Williams College art department library.

SD: Where are you from originally?

BS: Clearwater, Florida. I keep moving further north. My mother thinks I'll end up in the Arctic Circle eventually.

SD: When did you relocate to Burlington?

BS: Almost five years ago. I'd never worked at a public library before. Robert Resnik headed the outreach program for about 10 years, and he's a tough act to follow. I had a hard time at first. I didn't know the community. I was going through a divorce.

SD: I'm sorry to hear that. What were the good aspects of your new position?

BS: I love the face-to-face nature of what I do.

SD: You appear to be a great listener. Is your occupation something like bartending?

BS: Deliveries become more of a social occasion than a service -- particularly with the homebound, who are often rather isolated. The people I meet through books represent a regular part of my life. We get to know each other on a less superficial level than if we were just discussing the weather. They want to share what they're reading about.

SD: How many places do you get to each month?

BS: Eighteen, mostly senior apartment complexes, assisted-living facilities and nursing homes. I've also got eight homebound clients now.

SD: That seems like a busy schedule. Are you at capacity?

BS: Not at all. We'd welcome more. We get the word out through Meals on Wheels and United Way, but I think some people feel as if they're putting you out by asking for the program.

SD: Do they trust your recommendations?

BS: Sometimes. One woman won't borrow from me anymore. I'd suggested a book by an Irish writer, not realizing it has a bit of graphic sexual content.

SD: Guess she wouldn't be a candidate for Stupid White Men, either. Is there a downside to outreach?

BS: It can be back-breaking. Even pulling the wagon is tricky. Luckily, the City's health benefits include chiropractic care. I have to stay in shape. I can feel the difference whenever I slip up on my exercising.

SD: Speaking of slips, how do you manage lugging books around when it's snowy and icy in the winter?

BS: I wear very sensible librarian shoes.