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Codger’s Column: In the stacks

Codger has always loved libraries the way other people love ballfields or music rooms or auto shops or, these days, computers.

As a kid he felt happy and safe in libraries. He thought everything he needed to know was stacked on the shelves. And as time went on and libraries became even better, less hushed book depository and more community center, his need to know could also be fulfilled in their audio/visual offerings, group meetings, evening lectures.

Growing up in the city, he went to his small neighborhood library at least once a week and to a big regional Queens library at least once a month with his dad. He and his sister were allowed to take out any books they wanted, and as many as they could carry. To that Codger attributes his upper body strength.

All those good old feelings flood back whenever Codger enters the Shelter Island Library, which continues to amaze him with its breadth of programs, its openness to innovation, the way it embraces the Island’s appetites and aspirations.

He is looking forward to voting “Yes” on June 17 to an ambitious plan to make the library bigger and even better.

When Codger thinks about this, he’s thinking abstractly about a sacred place that now, more than ever, needs to be kept free from politics, open to all thought and opinion. But he’s also thinking about the impact of books on kids; in particular two books and one kid more than 70 years ago.

The first book turned Codger’s life upside down. The second turned it right side up.

The first book was the 1939 “The New You and Heredity,” by Amram Scheinfeld. No science nerd, the young Codger was probably in the science section looking for a book with pictures of naked women when he came upon a chart that measured masculinity and femininity.

The top of the masculinity chart thrummed with college athletes, architects and engineers. At the bottom were journalists, artists and clergymen, clearly Codger’s future neighborhood. (As for femininity, domestic workers rated highest, down low were women doctors and Ph.D’s.)

Codger was crushed. Bookish boys believe in books. He didn’t want to discuss this with Dad, a teacher (low on the chart), and make him feel bad, too. His only hope was to find a book with an opposing view.

For a month, Codger paged his way through his local library. He found nothing that would counter the chart. Finally, back at the big library, he clawed through science and biography and history and psychology. Nothing.

Toward the end of that day, exhausted and desperate, he stumbled into travel, a section he rarely visited. A blue book beckoned, the 1925 “The Royal Road to Romance,” by Richard Haliburton a 25-year-old adventurer who climbed mountains, stowed away on freighters, hunted man-eating tigers and then wrote about it. Codger was thrilled. No way Haliburton was on the bottom of anybody’s masculinity chart.

Codger kept that book out for months and as the late fees piled up he imagined himself swimming in crocodile-infested waters with his typewriter strapped to his back and then writing about it when he got to the other shore. Best money he ever spent, those 5-cent fines.

Sometimes you just have to pay for what you need. The pricetag for the new, improved library is an estimated $9.5 million. That’s not small change.

You could probably build a 15,000-square-foot wetlands palace for that with a few politicians thrown in for protection. And libraries can cause trouble, offering information that leads to thinking about progress and change. Codger thinks it’s the best deal around.

But it’s certainly not free. A recent public meeting presented by Library Board of Trustees president Jo-Ann Robotti and director Terry Lucas was informed that property assessed at $1.5 million would pay $269.55 annually to finance the 30-year bond issue.

Is that worth it? It’s a very personal choice considering that $269.55 is close to the average weekly grocery bill for a family of four, according to government statistics, or a boozy dinner for two at Vine Street or Leon.

But for Codger it’s about a 12-year-old who found two books, one junk science, the other an inflated memoir, that kick-started a life-long interest in finding out what was true and what was bogus.

The starting place for such quests has always been the library, even in the age of the internet (that’s accessible from the library, too.)

Everything he needed to know was there, even though some of it was dubious and had to be checked. Finding the truth isn’t always easy. But it’s in there somewhere if you’re willing to dig and compare and use your common sense.

Codger wants you to vote for that.