Finishing a good book is like losing a good friend, or so the saying goes, but the analogy sputters in reverse: There are many good books; there are fewer good friends.

Ann Paietta was one of those.

Paietta, who spent the last six years as director of the Essex Free Library, died October 10 after an extended stay in the hospital. She was 61.

A front desk fixture, Paietta preferred to skip the solitude of her office for the action at the library’s heart, so perhaps it’s fitting patrons learned of her death there. Met with a displayed photo of Paietta – a wide smile squeezing at the corners of her eyes – some can’t believe the news. A note scribbled in a condolence book wonders why she had to go.

Paietta’s staff watches this unfold as they, too, struggle to accept their beloved boss is gone. Their grief takes two forms: an unmistakable void too wide to explain, and moments when the loss doesn’t feel real, like she might walk through the door, crack a joke and restore a rightful order.

For her part, Paietta would probably shrink from the attention – she never was much for the spotlight. But memories of her bring comfort to those who knew her best, and that’s an idea she could get behind.

Paietta grew up on a vegetable farm in Walla Walla, Wash. and worked there into her teens. Years later, she earned a master’s in library science, but those early days would cement what later became her lifelong passions, according to her sister, Beth Daynes.

Their childhood was an endless stream of library books and trips to the town’s only movie theater, where they watched flicks like “2001: A Space Odyssey,” a tradition that endured for decades. Just this summer, the two women, both in their 60s, filled a day watching old science-fiction movies.

Paietta was the type to finish school projects days, even weeks, before they were due but downplay her achievements as if they were no big deal. Daynes nearly forgot how accomplished her younger sister was until she wrote Paietta’s obituary last week.

Indeed, Paietta’s six years in Essex bookended a career filled with posts at a slew of prestigious academic libraries including Yale University, the University of Illinois in Chicago and the New York Academy of Medicine. She was a frequent presenter at research conferences, a member of a consumer health taskforce and a councilor on a medical library advisory board. She wrote five books, three of which serve as exhaustive movie references focused on service-oriented careers: health professionals, religious figures and educators.

In one of those books, Paietta extols the power of cinema but notes it can be difficult to judge whether a film “reflects” or “affects” its society. The best do both. The same could be said about good librarians. They know not only when to encourage someone to try something new, but understand how to play to their audience.

“She knew her collection. She knew her patrons. She knew what they would like and what they wouldn’t like,” explained Bonnie Doble, the library board’s chairwoman. This assured the board Paietta was a good fit: Taking over for a longtime librarian who was widely loved, Paietta wasn’t out to push any radical agenda (whatever that could mean in the library world).

And even if Paietta’s taste led Doble down some “bizarre” paths bookwise, Paietta happily recalibrated so her suggestions included some beach-friendly reads, too.

Doble believes libraries continue to serve as a gathering place and a tried-and-true information source, one that can be the center of a community. At the heart of that mission is the director.

“Sometimes in a public library, there are people who come in, and you might be the only person they talk to that whole day,” said Deb Cross, a children’s program librarian. “For some people, that was Ann.”

Even those who never worked with Paietta could see why patrons sought her guidance. “She wasn’t going to ever be judgmental,” her sister said. “You didn’t feel like she was analyzing you. She was very accepting.”

Once, when an elderly patron suffering from Alzheimer’s became distressed, Paietta spent more than an hour with the woman, gently explaining her situation. She would go out of her way to find a desired book and remembered exactly who wanted what without ever writing it down. She bid each patron the same farewell.

“Take care,” she would say. “Take care.”

To acquaintances, she seemed quiet and unassuming, and even Doble describes her as a “woman of few words.” But Paietta’s staff saw another side of her.

Friends and family describe Ann Paietta as a brilliant, unassuming and clever woman who created a warm and welcoming enviornment at the Essex Free Library during her tenure there. The library will host a celebration of life on November 10 at 1 p.m. (courtesy photo)

To them, Paietta’s wit was unmatched. Delivered in the context of her otherwise reserved nature, her quick retorts seemed all the funnier, often leaving the staff in hysterics.

“When she looked at me, it would be all over,” said Lorraine Cole-Dolgas, the library’s registrar and circulation clerk.

Time spent working for Paietta led youth librarian Caitlin Corless to question a news story that detailed the amount of laughter the average adult has per day.

“I remember thinking, ‘I laugh way more than this article says.’ I think it was because I had such a funny boss,” Corless said. She initially couldn’t think of any examples, but then, with a mischievous laugh, she clarified, “Or maybe there’s some I shouldn’t share.”

Paietta encouraged staff to “have fun,” especially when they were off to some decidedly not-so-fun obligation. Children’s librarian Cross, who generally worked on the floor below the front desk, said Corless often came downstairs to share Paietta’s latest antics, which, on rare occasions, were even known to draw an infamous library shush from patrons.

But Paietta took her work seriously, too. She trusted her employees’ judgment. She encouraged them to pursue their own interests, whether that was speaking at a conference or testing out a new program. She believed in the library’s mission, and the community it called home.

And when they were faced with a challenge, she knew just how to calm the waters: This is a library, she’d tell them, not a hospital.

“Everything is fine,” she was fond of saying. “Nothing is an emergency. This can be fixed.”

It’s hard to harmonize that mindset against the finality of death.

In many ways, everything is not fine, at least not for those who knew Paietta best, who pull into work looking for her car or still think to text her for advice. Especially not for Daynes, who just last week was confronted with more death: this time, their 97-year-old mother.

Daynes finds comfort in the community’s response, calling it “one of the very few bright lights” in this “very dark time.” She’s happy her sister found a family here, at this library in this town.

But she knows a loss like this can’t be fixed, not in a real sense. She’s spent recent days trying to process her grief and reflecting on the time they spent together.

Daynes suggests their love of reading came from their mother, who let them play with her ancient books – a lesson that books are to be read, not feared. She wonders if her sister’s love of rescue dogs came from growing up in a house filled with so many animals. Or maybe it was her desire to make a difference in the world.

Pulling at the thread, she thought about how her sister always rocked in place, how she would scare their mother by rocking on this toy horse so hard it seemed she may tip over. How in her adult years, Paietta’s home had two rocking chairs, one for each floor.

There’s no clear analogy for the last one, Daynes admitted, and she’s right. But maybe that’s OK. Maybe memories don’t always fit neatly into a life.

“Maybe it’s just all about making a difference,” Daynes said, and in that moment, it’s unclear whether she was still talking about the dogs, or if she moved on to something else. Something bigger.

“Don’t we all really strive for that?”