BUCKHANNON — No matter how much time he spends reading, Ralph Oppenheim remains haunted by a gnawing ache that there’s always more to learn.
Perhaps, that’s why the new Upshur County Public Library director chose the career he did, relishing spending his days surrounded by the written word. Oppenheim enjoys all genres, he says, but if he has to choose, nonfiction tends to be his cup of tea.
“I’m always reading to learn more,” said Oppenheim, who took over for longtime library director Patricia Tolliver in November 2016. “I just never feel like I know enough; I’ve always thought I need to know more.”
For the record, “The Art of Invisibility: The World’s Most Famous Hacker Teaches You How to Be Safe in the Era of Big Brother and Big Data,” is his favorite nonfiction work. But his favorite book of all time? Well, interestingly, that happens to be a work of fiction — “Johnny Tremain,” a 1943 children’s historical novel penned by Esther Forbes that’s set just before the onset of the American Revolution. It garnered the 1944 Newberry Medal.
But it’s not just books he voraciously consumes – Oppenheim is something of a film connoisseur, having earned a master’s in cinema from Boston University in addition to his master’s in library science from Simmons College. Oppenheim even designed and taught courses on film history, editing and aesthetics at Columbia College in southern California, including one he developed that delved into the history of western films.
Oppenheim, who worked as the director of the Cabell County Public Library for six years before transitioning to Upshur County, recently sat down with The Record Delta to talk about the ways he’s trying to breathe new life into what many people might consider to be a dying institution.
The perception that libraries are on their way out couldn’t be further from the truth, Oppenheim insists.
“We get a couple hundred people a day,” he said of the library’s steady traffic. “It’s a pretty popular place. Much of it is for the internet. Actually, we’re the only source of internet for many people, and that’s crucial since computer literacy is essential these days.
“I mean, you can’t even apply to be a greeter at Walmart without a computer,” Oppenheim added. “It’s not like computers are the future; computers are the now.”
The perception that library use is dwindling often proves difficult to overcome, Oppenheim said.
“That’s a perception, but that’s not the truth,” the director said. “Having to combat that notion is a challenge. People often come into this library, and they’re surprised by how good it is.”
In addition to serving as a source for free internet access, the library is one of the last few places people can come to exchange knowledge and ideas for free, without feeling a pressure to purchase a mocha or latte, Oppenheim said.
“People are sometimes too wedded to the internet,” Oppenheim said. “We want to be a place where people can come and discover things they didn’t know about, places they didn’t know about, we want to have programs that are part of that. Libraries are the only noncommercial place that people from all walks of life can come to exchange ideas and discover new things.”
One way the library is trying to bolster the numbers of people it brings in, Oppenheim said, is through emphasizing lifelong learning. He’s made a point of ordering CD- and DVD-based courses, including “The New Testament,” “How to Listen to and Understand Great Music” and “Understanding Japan: A Cultural History.”
“We’ve got to focus on the segment of the population that is interested in lifelong learning,” Oppenheim said. “If there are people around here who are interested in lifelong learning, and I hope that there are, they will definitely take advantage of this.”
Another initiative the library is focusing on is beefing up its selection of children’s books and materials.
“The most notable thing we’re doing is the toy library,” Oppenheim said. “We’ve been collecting toys. There are lots of kids whose parents can’t afford to buy them toys, and other kids who outgrow their toys, so why not pass them on so other kids can take advantage of them?”
The new toy library will function just like a regular library: children and their parents will be able to check in and check out toys of their choice the same way they’d check out books.
“The toy library is going to be really popular, and we’re going to be able to attract both parents and kids,” Oppenheim said. The library is currently seeking corporate sponsorships as well as private donations of toys or money to outfit its toy library. Toys may be dropped off at the library, 1150 Route 20 South Road, in Buckhannon. Donations may also be mailed to the same address with the words “toy library” in the memo.
Children will also soon be able to check out three different nature backpacks, brimming with special age-appropriate tools and other learning materials. The library received a $500 gift from Walmart, which it has used to outfit a hiking backpack, a backyard naturalist backpack and a backyard geology backpack.
“These aren’t just toys, the things in these backpacks … these are real,” Oppenheim said. “For instance, there’s a set of real binoculars and in the geology backpack, there’s a real rock pick hammer. If you’re going to give kids tools, give them the real thing. This might require parental supervision.”
And, of course, the library has organized a summer reading program, “Build a Better World,” which launches June 24 for kids ages 4-12 with a children’s carnival from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Children can register for the reading program anytime on June 24, and it will last through July 21, featuring weekly activities and prizes.
Between creating greater incentives for children to explore the library and focusing on lifelong learning for adults, Oppenheim hopes to transform the library into a community and career development center of sorts. He acknowledges that’s the next necessary step, since the library no longer plays the same role it did in the pre-Google era.
“Decades ago, libraries did reference work,” Oppenheim said. “People came in with questions, like ‘what is the capital of this?’ and they would look it up. But now Google does such a good job of answering those questions. I would say Google answers 95 percent of everybody’s questions.”
Oppenheim doesn’t appear to be worried, since he sees libraries as vital, democratic and ultimately resilient institutions.
“Libraries have always kind of reconfigured themselves for current needs,” he said.
For more information about the upcoming children’s summer reading program or other events, call the library at 304-472-4219.