The Faneuil Branch Library sits in a place no one would expect it to sit, a massive stone building across the street from a YMCA. However, the library seems to be exactly where it needs to be, resting at the center of the Oak Square neighborhood like the keystone at the center of an archway. The person I am there to meet is an incarnate representation of this stability. Having worked at the Faneuil Branch Library for 50 years, Dorothy Keller has fought for funding from the city government, hosted many fundraising events for the community such as the annual “Funky Auction” and has allowed the library to be used as a place of education for both children and adults.
The library itself gives off an aura of safety, with twin maple blossoms outside drooping low over the front pathway into the building. Inside, there is silence, not born from a fear of noise, but from a calm that fills its absence. Keller believes in enforcing this safety. “[Libraries] are the only place that's open to everyone. I mean, it's not a school. It's not a senior center, it's a place where everyone can walk in and feel welcome.” She thinks libraries’ ability to provide free service to anyone is a big part of why they are necessary additions to neighborhoods.
Keller’s parents moved to Boston from Lowell, something she thinks of fondly as “a wonderful idea.” After World War ll, she and her siblings were born, and their parents moved from a triple-decker to a single-family house in Dorchester close to Lower Mills. Her father worked as a carpenter, and her mother stayed at home during her childhood, but later went on to become a lunch monitor. At 15, Keller got her first introduction into working in a library.
“I decided that I would apply for job … to shelve books,” Keller said. “And in those days, you had to take a test to work at the library. So I took the test and got a job. I just love the fact that they were very warm people, and that they cared about their community. And it just, it was just a great place to be.”
Unfortunately, libraries are often undervalued by those who fund them though they are invaluable elements of most communities. She explained that it’s not enough to have just one main library in the center of the city. There should be branches in different neighborhoods to reach as many people as possible.
There have been a large number of budget crises in the history of libraries in general, and it is not a pattern that looks to be ending soon. Keller believes that as a female-dominated field there is some discrimination as well.
“I think that that certainly has a has had a negative impact on salaries and how, you're right, how librarians are viewed,” she said.
Keller asked the librarians at the front desk if we could go into her office. The question is just formality, the office will always be hers, even now that she is retired. Once we enter, she reaches up to a shelf, retrieving a large tome of photographs and articles. She handles it gingerly, turning each page with such great care that I am hesitant to touch it myself. Inside is the history of the library we are standing in. In some ways, it has changed, but in others, I am surprised to find, it hasn’t changed much at all.
When I ask Keller about the impact of technology on the usefulness of libraries, she happily informs me that it has only made the sorting and transport of books easier.
“I mean, with the electronic catalogs for library collections, anyone can get what they need. And that's a wonderful thing,” she said. “It's great for a librarian to have the interaction with the patron. But I mean, the fact that you can put in a couple of words and come up with a book that you need...it's such an advance.”
While the creation of the internet may not have helped the number of people who use libraries directly, Keller is confident that libraries will always have a purpose in their original use, that of a sanctuary.
Though Keller is now retired, the Faneuil Library that she helped support for 50 years will support the Oak Square community for the foreseeable future. Not only will she always be a welcomed and beloved member of the neighborhood, but also a source of knowledge and kindness.