Martha’s Vineyard libraries off-season: more than just books

Aaliyah Burney and Mercedes Burney face off in a game of chess at the oak Bluffs Library. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

The local library has changed in the past couple of decades, in response to advances in technology. Facilities that once existed solely for the purpose of lending books and making reference materials available are now distributing much of their material electronically, and they have become community home base for public-use computers. According to Nis Kildegaard, a reference librarian for the Edgartown Public Library, “In the past few years, we have circulated more non-book items than books.”

But, one role of the local library has remained a constant. While the library landscape has adjusted to the technology age, one of the most important ways that the local institutions serve the public, according to representatives from five of the Island’s six libraries, is as a social setting and a center for a wide range of activities. And this is especially true in the winter when Islanders may be isolated and bored.

Beth Kramer, director of the West Tisbury Free Public library said, “Off season was once a quiet time for Island libraries, but we are really busy now — helping people write resumes and search for jobs, helping students with their school projects and providing a safe place to come after school and work on homework, providing material for upcoming trips, working with the public to learn how to use the Internet and computers, and planning our upcoming programs in response to community requests.”

Mr. Kildegaard talks about the community planning concept of “the “third” place.”

“The first place is our homes,” he said. “The second is where we work. Communities need third places as well – places that we return to. Where we linger. Places that have a democratic, egalitarian spirit. Places that build connective tissue. In a small town in England, that will be a pub. In New England, it will be the local library.”

Edgartown Library acting director Lisa Sherman has observed this in action. “We have an interesting phenomenon,” she said. “A group of people who come in consistently in the winter — a little family almost. They read the paper and hang out. Some of the those people disappear in the summer. There’s not enough room. When the tourists go away, they come back.”

Anna Marie D’Addarie, circulation manager at the Oak Bluffs Public Library, has observed that more people are coming into the library to read newspapers recently, since they have had to drop their home subscriptions for budgeting purposes. The Oak Bluffs Library hosts a Wednesday morning coffee hour conversation group. Many patrons combine their daily news fix with discussions with their neighbors during this weekly get-together.

“It’s a good social thing,” Ms. D’Addarie said.

Five years ago, the Chilmark Free Public Library established an off-season library cafe, with free coffee and cookies.

“We try to make it an inviting space for people who want to get out of their houses and meet with neighbors.” Chilmark Library director Ebba Hierta said. “We try to fulfill that need because there’s not much happening up here in the winter.”

Catherine Thompson, director of the Aquinnah Library, concurs. “Aquinnah is a very small community and the people who are here seem to really value the central gathering place aspect of the library.” She hosts a coffee get-together every Saturday. Other programming in Aquinnah includes a book discussion group, scrapbooking, and photo album workshops. There is a weekly crafts group for kid, but Ms. Thompson notes that the library will provide projects for kids at any time.

Hal Garneau, who works in circulation and interlibrary loans for the Vineyard Haven Public Library, said, “We notice a lot more of the locals in the wintertime using the library as a community center.”

The Vineyard Haven library is the only one of the town libraries to have a dedicated adult programming person on staff. The library also offers a minimum of two weekly programs — including talks, workshops and movies — year-round. Many of the events are filled to capacity in the winter.

The West Tisbury Library also offers a rich ongoing program of cultural and instructional events, including movies, poetry readings, author talks, writers’ workshops, and educational workshops. The Edgartown Library hosts a weekly movie in the off season as does the Aquinnah Library. The Chilmark library offers two – one on Friday evenings and a new slot on Wednesday afternoons to accommodate seniors who don’t drive at night. This winter, the Chilmark Library is hosting French conversation evenings as part of a wintertime instructional initiative. In the summer, the Chilmark library replaces winter activities with a popular weekly lecture series featuring talks by local and visiting experts.

All of the local libraries offer activities for kids and have a children’s programming person on staff (except Aquinnah). The Chilmark Library actually serves as an adjunct to the Chilmark School in a lot of respects. A youth program runs all day on Mondays. The library offers instruction in online research and literature appreciation. According to Ms. Hierta, the library holds the primary collection of books for the town school, whose own collection is very limited. One class every year produces a collaborative book, which the library publishes. There are also story and music hours for young children and a weekly after-school crafts program. Martha’s Vineyard Community Services holds a new parents group once a week at the library.

Summer is another story. “We do half of our annual circulation in June, July, and August,” Ms. Hierta said. “Library use is driven so much by weather in the summertime.” During the especially busy foul-weather days, the library hosts a rainy day craft project.

Of the seasonal change, Edgartown’s Ms. Sherman said, “It’s like working at two separate libraries. It requires a different pace.” She noted that along with their increased workload in the summer, library staff members are constantly asked for directions, recommendations and permission to use the bathrooms. “We’re sort of like a visitors’ center,” she said.

Mr. Garneau has found a way to help relieve some of the summer congestion created by visitors taking advantage of the library’s wireless service. “We were getting a bit crowded until we started pointing out to people that we have this beautiful patio area with tables and chairs outside.” The deck in front of the Chilmark Library is referred to as “the office” due to the number of laptop users taking advantage of wi-fi in a town where dial-up service is often the only at-home option.

Despite the increase in traffic in the summer, Ms. D’Addarie said that she makes every effort to engage in conversation with locals year-round. “We try not to short-change them in the height of the season,” she said. “It isn’t simply that we’re chatting or gossiping. Some people don’t have anyone at home to talk about books or movies.”

Ms. D’Addarie said she learned an important lesson from Anita Parker, a long-time library assistant who died last year. “Everybody who walks in this library gets greeted,” she said. “No matter how busy you are, they know that you are glad they walked in the door. That was really important to Anita.”