For the past 25 years Bob Allard has manned his station at the Westhampton Free Library’s reference desk, earning a reputation for his encyclopedic knowledge and ability to track down even the most obscure books.The 64-year-old also has been witness to the introduction of new technologies, upgrades that now allow librarians to accomplish with a few keystrokes what once took them weeks.
And even though a simple web search can open a world of information, perhaps threatening the demand for tangible books, the Westhampton Beach resident made a case for the irreplaceable resources that local libraries continue to offer—even in this modern age.
“There’s so much power in information,” he said during a recent interview. “How many free avenues of information do we have?”
Mr. Allard used the topic of global warming to underscore that particular point. While the vast majority of published scientific work supports the notion that human activity has accelerated climate change, many in the mainstream press have portrayed a much different picture, according to the longtime librarian, explaining that some of those sources insist that the changes in weather patterns are part of the planet’s natural design.
“If you don’t want to believe the scientific literature, you can come here and do your own research,” he said of his workplace, located on the fittingly named Library Avenue in Westhampton Beach, which subscribes to various research databases. “And we don’t spin it. We just give you what you’re looking for.”
That lesson has applied outside the library as well, he said. For his first 14 years on the job, Mr. Allard was caring for his mother, who fell ill in her older years. He took it upon himself to search the history of his mother’s doctor, who wanted to hastily operate on her, using the database provided by the state’s health department.
The search revealed that the doctor was on probation for gross negligence, leading Mr. Allard to believe that the doctor wanted to operate on his mother, who has since passed, only to cover his malpractice insurance costs.
“You have to question everything,” he said. “And again, that’s the power of information.”
It was Mr. Allard’s own love for libraries that led him to employment at the Westhampton Free Library. “In fact, I didn’t really apply for this job,” he explained.
He had frequented the library since his family moved to Westhampton when he was 10, after his late father, Charles Allard, was transferred to the Air National Guard base at the Francis S. Gabreski Airport.
“This was one of the first places my mother brought me as a kid,” he recalled. “I almost grew up here, in a way.”
After graduating from Westhampton Beach High School and then summa cum laude from Southampton College, with a degree in English literature, Mr. Allard made a living working various jobs, including writing rock reviews for a music magazine called the “Music Journal,” which was once published in Southampton. He also won the college’s literary prize for poetry, and has been published in smaller circulation magazines.
A librarian named Shirley VanDeroef took notice of Mr. Allard’s keen interest in literature, judging by the books he picked up at a library book sale, and his skilled ability to conduct research. She offered him a job, which he accepted in 1988, after the library’s new wing was renovated.
Mr. Allard has also published many works, including a study on the German playwright Bertolt Brecht, and he noted that Ms. VanDeroef was helpful in tracking down the books he needed.
“Ever since then, that’s been my model,” he explained. “Because I know what a great feeling—from this side of the counter—what a great feeling it was to come in and get all these books that were all, you know, exactly what I needed.”
Danielle Zubiller, the director of the library, said Mr. Allard always offers a friendly face to patrons, and noted that they gravitate to him. She said he is the go-to person for any historical or in-depth research, whether it’s for writing a book or a simple, everyday inquiry. He has also helped several authors with their research while writing books, garnering a note of thanks in their acknowledgment pages.
“We’re lucky to have him as an asset,” she said.
Reflecting back on his 25 years on the job, Mr. Allard said the diversity of the library’s clientele, as well as the abundance of book-related news, always keeps things interesting. At the same time, as the library’s first reference employee, Mr. Allard has also seen certain requests wane. For example, changes in the way people consume media, including streaming video content instead of watching DVDs, has also affected the library’s circulation.
Despite those changes, however, Mr. Allard thinks that books, as permanent records, will always be in demand, so long as people seek unaltered facts. He described a “fantasy” scenario, one not all that unimaginable, in which hackers alter online factual records, like newspaper archives, heightening the importance of books and other printed records.
“I think people will always want books,” he said.