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Astoria Characters: The By-The-Book Librarian

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Laurel Hicklin is standing in the stacks at the Steinway Library. She takes a deep breath. "There's nothing like the smell of books," she says in delight. "It's so exciting to be surrounded by all kinds of books that are just waiting to be read."

She's felt this way ever since she was a girl growing up on the Thumb of Michigan. "I went to the library all the time," says Laurel, the branch's assistant community library manager. "I always came home with a stack of books. They were pure joy. After I read my stack, I read my two sisters' stacks, too."

Books for the little Laurel meant adventure -- and escape. "Fantasy books were near and dear to me," she says. "After I read The Chronicles of Narnia, I went into my closet and pushed on the wall trying to get to another world."

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Books bring life to life for Laurel the librarian.

The only thing Laurel loved more than books was her local library, where she was such a frequent visitor that the librarians knew her by name. "It was one of the first places I was allowed to walk to by myself," she says.

Oddly enough, it never occurred to her to be a librarian. "Like a lot of children, I entertained thoughts of being a waitress or an actress," she says.

By the time she enrolled at Michigan State University, she had chosen history as her major. "I didn't know what else to study," she says. "I had been a music major and thought about becoming a Russian major, so I got to history by the process of elimination."

When she graduated, she still didn't know what she wanted to do. "My professors were pushing me to go to graduate school," she says. "But I realized I didn't want the academic life."

After a series of temp jobs at various companies, she decided that she wasn't suited to corporate life either. "I was so desperately unhappy that I got to the point of crying at my desk," she says.

It was then that a book came to her rescue. She bought -- didn't borrow -- the classic career-change tome What Color Is Your Parachute?

"In one of the exercises, you are asked to choose what is most important to you, and for me it was the kind of work environment," she says. "And libraries just popped into my head."

Laurel accepted a job with the Queens Library right before she graduated from the University of Michigan with a master's of science in information degree. "The vast majority of the staff is from New York," she says, adding that her college advisor had Queens connections. "I had no inclination to move to New York City, but the city's system had a strong history of teens services, which I was interested in, and Michigan didn't."

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Laurel loves the written word -- and the Queens Library.

So nine years ago, she packed her books and her dreams and came East. Her job was in the Richmond Hill branch, but she took an apartment in Astoria. "I knew someone in Michigan who knew someone in Astoria," she says.

Two years later, a promotion took her to Far Rockaway, and four years ago, she became the assistant manager at Steinway. She met her husband at her church, and 15 months ago, they had their first child, James, whose visits to the Steinway branch have turned him into a minor celebrity.

Laurel, a pretty and perky brunette who finds it calming to riffle through card catalogs and likes to alphabetize books for fun, laments the fact that motherhood has forced her to curtail her reading. She only polishes off one book a month instead of one a week. Of course, she gets them at the library, not at a bookstore.

"I'm not a big fiction reader," she says. "I like to read books that expand my knowledge base, so I read a lot of narrative nonfiction."

She doesn't have a Kindle or a Nook -- "I would only want one if I were stuck in a remote corner of the world where there were no books in English" -- but she does have a lot of late fines. "I've never turned books in on time," she says and laughs. "So I understand when people bring them in late."

Despite the digitization of the written word, Laurel doesn't see the book disappearing anytime soon. The Queens Library may not fare as well. The city plans to cut $17 million from the library budget, lay off 300 staff members and close 14 branches. It's unknown whether this will be the final chapter for the Steinway branch, where nearly 300,000 items are checked out in any given year.

"I love librarianship," Laurel says. "Someday, I'd like to manage my own Queens Library branch. I could easily see myself staying in the Queens system my entire career. If and when I leave the Steinway branch, I'll miss the people the most."

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at Nruhling@gmail.com.
Copyright 2010 by Nancy A. Ruhling