Off the Shelf: The Impact of Stories



Off the Shelf

Brittany R. Jacobs, Library Director


Out of Burlington have come many people of note ranging in specialties from space science and physics with Edward Stone, who recently retired from NASA, to Hollywood’s beloved William Frawley who played the grouchy neighbor, Fred Mertz, in I Love Lucy and many, many more inbetween. One person of note from Burlington who left their mark in the world of literature is Sterling Lord, acclaimed literary agent of Jack Kerouac, Jimmy Breslin and Ted Kennedy to name a few. 


What exactly does a literary agent do? With the publishing world getting smaller and smaller with fewer and fewer publishing houses producing books, many houses have taken to only accepting ‘solicited manuscripts’ - enter the agent. Agents do the soliciting, getting author’s stories and illustrator’s artwork in front of editors, art directors and publishers in the hopes of securing a publishing deal. Lord was not only good, but great at this very task. 


With Lord’s passing away on his 102nd birthday this September he left behind his own literary agency, Sterling Lord Litristic, Inc. based out of every novelist's dream city, New York. During the month of November the Burlington Public Library pays homage to this literary great with our own Sterling Lord Readers and Writers Festival where local authors are featured each Saturday in the main entryway of the library for patrons to chat with and purchase books from. 


Aside from Lord hailing from our charming town, the Burlington Public Library is centered around the success of thousands of literary agents and the hundreds of thousands of authors and illustrators they represent. To produce a book, both fiction and non-fiction, requires a team of people working behind the scenes to get what we see on the shelf. The author first writes the manuscript, and in many cases the agent plays the first round of copy editor making sure the project is in tip-top shape for submitting to publishing houses. 


Once ready for submission, the agent shops the story around looking for the right publishing house and publisher to take on the project. If a book deal is struck, then contracts are signed and the heavy editing begins. If we’re talking about a children’s picture book then this is where the illustration edits begin with editors, art directors and marketing teams all weighing in to get the illustrations just right. Once the book has been deemed ready for printing off it goes to the printer and several months later the books hit the shelves of bookstores and libraries. 


At the Burlington Public Library we strive to keep an ever-expanding and ever-renewing collection that hovers around 150,000 circulating items. During the month of October alone the community checked out just below 19,000 items including books, DVDs, periodicals and video games. If you include the digital books available for checkout the October circulation number swells to 21,350! 


Why do people brave the elements and take time out of their day to come to the library and pick up a book, newspaper, movie or any of the other items we have on offer? Stories, particularly in the form of books, offer a wide range of benefits to our brains. The act of reading offers our brains an excellent form of exercise from sharpening our neural pathways that were developed when we learned how to read, to creating healthy life-long learning habits that can keep us cognitively sharp into our later years. 


Books, movies, video games and the like also offer free entertainment, whisking us away to planets and experiences far, far away from our day-to-day reality. Mason Cooley is quoted as saying, “reading gives us someplace to go when we have to stay where we are.” If these last several years aren’t a good example of the importance of books whisking us away when we have to stay where we are, then I don’t know what is.  Entertainment is important to our mental health as it gives us an escape when we need a break from reality and offers us an opportunity to see life through someone else’s perspective, which leads us to our next, and perhaps most vital point - books create empathy.


We connect with people through books and have even been found to develop a deeper sense of empathy after reading stories about people different from ourselves. In a world where things can feel very divisive and people often feel disconnected from one another, books give us hope and tools for dreaming up a new way of existing and extending grace and compassion for one another. 


Stories are the backbone of the public library system, perhaps even the backbone to our very species. Oral stories were how we passed along information before we became literate, yet telling stories has stood the test of time and remains the single best way to convey information with meaning and emotion. Thanks to the likes of Serling Lord and countless authors who’ve created worlds and made sense out of the one we’re currently in, we’ve got thousands of opportunities for you to dive into your next great read. Give yourself the gift of exercise, entertainment and empathy this holiday season and check out a book from your local public library or buy a shiny new copy from your local bookseller. 

Happy reading!