Soundings: A library moment for an Island that loves its libraries

In the season of annual town meetings that opens this Tuesday, public libraries are making headlines in four of the six Island towns. Edgartown and West Tisbury will vote on multi-million-dollar building projects. All three up-Island towns are poised to join the Cape Libraries Automated Materials Sharing system, the regional network known to and beloved by down-Island patrons as CLAMS.

It’s a remarkable moment, playing out against the backdrop of a Vineyard community that fiercely loves its libraries.

Ebba Hierta, director of the Chilmark Library, recently spent some time with her calculator and the records kept by MBLC, the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners. She totaled the number of transactions Vineyarders made at their libraries last year, divided by our year-round population, and then did the same for Nantucket. Ebba found that on Nantucket, the tally came to 17 transactions, per patron, per year. On the Vineyard, the number of transactions was 33 — double Nantucket’s figure.

“Martha’s Vineyard,” she told me, “might be the library-lovingest place in the Commonwealth. I think the fact that our libraries are being used so heavily by our residents is proof positive that these six libraries are doing a great job.”

Last July, the Island received news from the state that two towns had won grants for new library construction. West Tisbury won $2.98 million, available as soon as the town votes its portion of the project cost. Edgartown won $5 million — also pending a town vote — with its state funds becoming available next summer.

Meanwhile, at the Edgartown Library, where I work, we still hear at least one patron remarking every week that it’s too bad we didn’t get our grant. Actually, we respond, it’s a good thing we won our grant in the second year rather than in the first, because Edgartown needed time to prepare the comprehensive plan, which voters are taking up this week.

Island papers have enjoyed contrasting West Tisbury’s happy dance toward a new public library with Edgartown’s bruising political slog. Conflict makes news — I get that. But I’d like, politely, to suggest that in fact the similarities between the stories of these two towns entirely trump the differences:

Edgartown’s most recent library expansion, to 6,800 square feet in 1975, was so heavily compromised that in 1986, the town’s capital programs committee put the library back on its short list of facilities needing expansion. West Tisbury’s current library building, which opened in 1993, was cut back by more than half from the original design by architect Ben Moore, and at just 5,640 square feet was inadequate from the start.

Edgartown has struggled painfully with the disposition of a beloved building, the 1904 Carnegie Library on North Water Street. West Tisbury had a similarly hard time letting go of its historic Music Street library – trying not once, but twice, to operate a branch there.

In the end, both towns accepted that their old library buildings were outgrown and turned to the Island champions of adaptive reuse, the Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust. The Preservation Trust has restored the Music Street library and now rents the space to Island Theatre Workshop. The Trust has promised that if voters approve the new library in Edgartown, it will take the lead in restoration and reuse of the Carnegie building.

Finally, both Edgartown and West Tisbury explored vastly more ambitious expansion plans in recent years, and then sharpened their pencils. In 2003, West Tisbury considered plans for a new library enclosing 22,000 square feet; the design before voters this week is just 13,000 feet square. Four years ago, Edgartown was considering a 24,000-square-foot building plan; the project now proposed measures 15,600 square feet.

In both West Tisbury and Edgartown, the library trustees and building committees have come up with smart, tight building designs that will serve their towns for at least a generation. This, I’d suggest, is the story of deep parallels between two towns that has been eclipsed by the coverage of juicy political spats-du-jour over the past year in Edgartown.

Meanwhile, the library budgets of West Tisbury, Chilmark and Aquinnah this year include funds that will bring them into the same CLAMS library network that already includes the three down-Island towns. It’s hard to overstate what a game-changer this is for up-Island library patrons.

Ms. Hierta of Chilmark says the first thing her library staff looks forward to doing, after voters approve, is to enroll all Chilmark’s patrons in the CLAMS network and connect them to downloadable audiobooks, music, ebooks and videos through the OverDrive service. Chilmark’s second step will be connecting their patrons to all 1.5 million items held by the CLAMS libraries across the Island and Cape Cod. Finally, sometime this fall, Chilmark will bring its own collection of about 34,000 items online for sharing across the network.

For West Tisbury, the urgency of membership in a regional network is heightened by that town’s building plans. While the town library is closed for expansion, West Tisbury will operate from what is now a single room of the building, and patrons will get most of the materials they need from the regional network.

In Aquinnah, library director Catherine Thompson is also delighted to be giving her patrons access to digital materials through the CLAMS network. “The downloadable component and the quality of the interface are both so strong,” she says. “I think people will love it.”

As members of CLAMS, the Island public libraries, and all our patrons, will be able to enjoy the best of both worlds: the library as local gathering place, and the library as portal to a lively world of information. For the “library-lovingest place in the Commonwealth,” this year brings a great moment of opportunity.