Saturday, December 03, 2022

Person of the Week

Making Books that Don’t Open, Choosing Books that Do


Michael Sweeney carves wooden books that won’t open, as art and, as Acton Library’s new reference and young adult librarian, seeks to open minds with books and online resources that do. He’s shown here admiring the sculpture by Roger Bowie that welcomes guests to the library.

Michael Sweeney carves wooden books that won’t open, as art and, as Acton Library’s new reference and young adult librarian, seeks to open minds with books and online resources that do. He’s shown here admiring the sculpture by Roger Bowie that welcomes guests to the library. (Photo by Becky Coffey/Harbor News)

As an artist/craftsman, Michael Sweeney carves wooden books that don’t open or reveal their contents.

“I try to make them as enticing as possible. It’s a reminder of how much there is to learn and what we still don’t know,” says Michael.

As Old Saybrook’s Acton Library’s new reference and young adult librarian, Michael has a different goal: to find books that open minds to reveal new worlds, real and imagined, inhabited by complex characters with whom young readers can connect.

In his first three weeks at Acton, Michael has been studying the young adult area to find ways to improve it. He also hopes to get the Youth Advisory Committee reestablished to boost youth involvement.

In his role as reference librarian, he’s spent the last few weeks evaluating how people can most easily get to the information they’re looking for in order to make the reference part of his job work well, and he hopes that he also can begin to work on some new programming to increase involvement and connections of all generations to the library.

It’s a role with which he’s very comfortable, having headed up program planning at Brainerd Memorial Library in Haddam until he started work at Acton Library.

“I revamped their programming to boost attendance, but found that I missed kids and work to connect generations, to build bridges between them through programming, technology, books,” says Michael. “Creating that opportunity is what I try to do wherever I’m working and in my art.”

When he chose programming for Haddam’s library, he chose those that featured makers and creators doing a show or demonstration followed by a TEDx-type talk to connect the audience with their art or craft.

“We live in a maker world. What’s interesting is how performers and creators do what they do. How do they personally connect with their craft?” Michael asks. “One program featured a magician who came in and did a two-hour program with a magic show and a TED talk about communication. Everyone from three years to 85 years of age could connect with him.”

Growing up in far north upstate New York, he was an outdoor kid who also read books; his favorite book growing up was To Kill a Mockingbird.

His mother served for years on his town’s library board of trustees; this led to his first job as a teenager cleaning the town library each week. In college, library work paid for his college living expenses, allowing him to complete a college major in fine arts. While at the University of Connecticut earning a graduate degree in fine arts (his focus was on painting, printmaking, and object-making), it was his jobs working in university and public libraries that sustained him.

Today, he works 25 hours a week at Acton Library and spends his time outside of the library creating art for himself or to fulfill commissions. Currently, he’s completing a wooden table as a commission piece while also putting finishing touches on his carving of a wooden book (that doesn’t open) that was commissioned by an author with whom he’s worked. In 2015, he created a large work for Bradenton, Florida’s Embracing our Differences public art display; his mural piece was one of just a dozen billboard-sized canvases chosen for the public art event from over tens of thousands of entries submitted. (Examples of his art creations are posted on his web page

“It’s a balancing act. Art is a tough business and you need something to feed what you do, what you create. The diversity of things that pass over my desk at the library is huge,” says Michael.

He says that it’s the mix of diverse ideas, stories, settings, and illustrations in the books he sees that help to inspire his art. One helps to feed the other.

Reflecting on young adult (YA) books that are popular, he says that dystopic fiction and things that involve magic are themes that remain big. Books with strong female characters like in The Hunger Games series are also big. Another good series, The Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater, has a strong female character in the first book who is joined by strong male leads of equal competence in later books.

Another popular YA theme is alternate history like in the book Pride, Prejudice, and Zombies. Realistic and historic fiction is also popular with YA readers. One realistic fiction novel set in the early 20th century that he likes is Whistling Past the Graveyard by Susan Crandall; this story has a nine-year old narrator who faces tough family issues.

What Michael says is hard to find in current young adult fiction are books with a strong male lead, especially one who may make mistakes but that still has good judgment that helps him recover and correct his mistakes.

In his role as reference librarian, the big challenge for him is that people assume that an online search will let you get to everything.

“As a reference librarian, I can help you get to different and better information. Are you asking the right question?” says Michael. “And while the information you need may be online, sometimes the best place to look is in a book.”

An incident at his grandfather’s farm in upstate New York illustrates reference work for him. His grandfather needed to dig a new well, so he hired a divining rod expert to find the best spot to dig. When the well-digger began drilling, he reached water where the rod had suggested it would be found and at the depth the divining rod expert predicted.

“My grandfather taught me all about reference: It’s about where to look and how deep to go,” says Michael with a smile.

Becky Coffey covers news for Old Saybrook and Westbrook for Zip06. Email Becky at

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