Edgartown’s library odyssey lacks focus and suppleness


As we’ve repeated often, this page favors libraries. We like the old-fashioned ones, but the trend is in another direction.

Most new libraries and library expansions these days create splendid community assets that are remarkably pleasant places to be, to study, to entertain oneself, to read, and to have at the technology that today makes libraries more than they ever were, to more people, for a greater variety of purposes.

But they are not necessarily beautiful, architecturally distinguished, or just a few steps from downtown. They can be municipal centerpieces as well as intellectual, entertainment, and architectural focal points, but it is not always so. Libraries that serve their public effectively are those that recognize the wide-ranging nature of their constituencies and determine to do their job, furnishing the intellectual and information resources those constituencies require. That’s the job, after all, no matter how it’s packaged.

“The stereotypical library is dying,” John Sutter wrote for CNN in September and we acknowledged earlier in this space, “and it’s taking its shushing ladies, dank smell, and endless shelves of books with it.”

Of course, this doesn’t mean that libraries, or even the Edgartown Library, is about to expire. Islanders often, and this is one of those cases, blaze a trail of their own. The history of lovely, thoughtful library expansions or new construction in Chilmark and Oak Bluffs, of remodeling, enlargement and robust activity at the Vineyard Haven library, and of the planned expansion of the West Tisbury library proves the point. Whether the library quarters are historic, splendid in any respect, or humble, they are valued for what they do for the public they serve.

“Libraries are trying to imagine their futures with or without books,” Mr. Sutter continued. “Books are being pushed aside for digital learning centers and gaming areas. ‘Loud rooms’ that promote public discourse and group projects are taking over the bookish quiet. Hipster staffers who blog, chat on Twitter, and care little about the Dewey Decimal System are edging out old-school librarians.”


“And that’s just the surface,” Mr. Sutter writes, a bit repetitious himself. “By some accounts, the library system is undergoing a complete transformation that goes far beyond these image changes. Authors, publishing houses, librarians, and Web sites continue to fight Google’s efforts to digitize the world’s books and create the world’s largest library online. Meanwhile, many real-world libraries are moving forward with the assumption that physical books will play a much-diminished or potentially nonexistent role in their efforts to educate the public. Some books will still be around, they say, although many of those will be digital. But the goal of the library remains the same: To be a free place where people can access and share information.”

A free place, just a place, can be the library that a town needs. Edgartown’s struggle to enlarge its library has stumbled — besieged with misconceptions, financial shortfalls, and a paralyzing belief that the existing North Water Street library building, a historic landmark in downtown Edgartown, has a defining influence to play on the decisions that must be made to create a new library, the new place.

Without arguing that the Carnegie building and its historic value should be set aside as the town comes to grip with the need for a library that is bigger, more modern, and withal more in tune with the multi-purpose requirements of the day, that familiar building should not be the focus of the library expansion project. The focus should be what Edgartown’s residents need in a modern library.

And, what town officials, the library trustees, and the library design committee members must do, if they are to discharge their responsibilities to voters, townspeople and taxpayers, is to demonstrate a supple willingness to work together toward the goal, having in mind what a library should be — not what the Carnegie library building should be.

Without such a supple focus on what the town needs, Edgartown may not find a way through this torturous debate to a reconceived library that will serve their lovely, wealthy, busy town for a long while.

That’s not to underestimate the difficulty of answering cost, location, and design questions, especially in these economically uncertain times. But, it is to say that the most helpful participants in the discussions will be those with the easy willingness to consider as many possibilities as may be proposed.

A terrific library may yet emerge. If not, the collection of narrow interests that now beset this project will deserve the blame.