Get to know your library: Chilmark

The Island’s oldest library has its own story.

From left, Irene Tewksbury, Kristin Maloney, and Ebba Hierta. Photo by Lisa Vanderhoop

First in a series of occasional Island library profiles.

The Chilmark Free Public Library: A history

The Chilmark library is the oldest library on-Island, dating back to 1882 when it began as a lending library with 33 donated books. At the time, the charge for book rentals was fixed at three cents a week, and the books were kept on a shelf in the Mayhew Brothers’ (later E. Eliot Mayhew’s) store across the road from the Mayhew homestead. In 1895 the library moved into the new part of E. Eliot Mayhew’s store, with an annual rent of $10. However, space was lacking for the ever-increasing number of books (roughly 2,000 volumes at the time), and when the town hall at Beetlebung Corner was built, it included a room for the library. The move at the turn of the century stimulated growth for the library, and a librarian’s report for 1903 notes that “the past year has been an eventful one in the history of the library. It was moved into pleasant, commodious quarters of its own, and has added to its list of friends. It is an increasing social center as well as mental stimulus.”

Eventually the library moved into its current home, which was originally constructed in 1790 for Captain William Tilton, and purchased from the Katie West estate in 1953, enlarged and renovated, and opened to the public in the summer of 1956. Katie West was the last of the famed “Chilmark deaf” community to die. During the 19th and early 20th century, there was a large population of deaf people on the Vineyard, especially Chilmark. The community is well known among scholars and institutions dedicated to the deaf, partly because of its role in the development of American Sign Language (ASL). As a result, many visitors today still stop in to tour the library as a landmark of the deaf community.

By 1962, inventory for the library was close to 11,000 bound volumes. In 1990, the Friends of the Chilmark Library was formed to solicit funds for a major expansion of facilities, and close to $150,000 was raised. The town of Chilmark contributed from its budget, and the town’s building and library committees oversaw the construction of a major addition and renovation. In 2003 the library was further updated and expanded. Today Chilmark has the highest per capita circulation in the commonwealth — just over 60,000 items go out the door each year. “Not bad for a community of 900!” boasts library director Ebba Hierta.

A commitment to programs

Beyond books, the Chilmark library offers a plethora of programs and activities year-round. As an ongoing partnership, the library serves as the Chilmark school library, and Kristin Maloney, assistant director and youth services librarian, teaches four classes a day. Kindergarteners through fifth graders visit for book appreciation, author talks, storytelling, library use, and reference skills. Afterschool and summer reading programs are also offered to local children.

During the summer months, the library hosts a successful lecture series. “We’re fortunate we have academic summer residents and library supporters. There’s a brain trust that we have of cutting-edge people in their field,” said Ms. Hierta in an interview with The Times about the inspiration for the lecture series, which has featured local authors Tom Dresser, John Hough, Kevin Parham, Chris Fischer, and many more.

Talks are always happening. Art historian Annie Cohen-Solal read from her new book “Mark Rothko: Toward the Light in the Chapel” in September. Last week archaeologist and Native American historian Jim Bradley hosted a talk on wampum, and this Saturday, Nov. 14, up-Island wampum bead makers will host a show and sale of their treasured items.

The group’s work has been on display in the meeting space of the library since October. Another sector of the Island community that benefits from the library is the artists, who are able to hang their work and host receptions there. “Hanging space in the summer is booked up several years in advance,” according to Ms. Hierta.

Last winter, to keep up-Islanders busy during the slower months, the library conducted a series of health-oriented lectures on meditation, blood pressure control, and technology education and social media. They also organize a Chowder and a Movie series every Friday to provide entertainment. “We’re always looking for ways to give people a reason to get out of the house, and hook up with neighbors,” said Ms. Hierta. The library cafe features Keurig coffee and pastries for a suggested donation, and often free chowder. Once the Chilmark Store closes for the season, the library becomes a destination for the locals to get their caffeine fix. According to Ms. Hierta, the town of Chilmark has twice the national average of people over 60, so there’s a good sector of the town’s population available during the day who can take advantage of the library’s resources.

So how do they do it all? Meet the team:

Name and job title:

Ebba Hierta, library director.

How long have you worked here?

Since 2006. Before that, I worked at the West Tisbury library from 2003 to 2006.

How did you come to be a librarian?

Serendipity played a significant role. I accepted a job at the West Tisbury library while I was finishing up a master’s degree in environmental science. I wanted to work in environmental education and journalism. But I fell in love with libraries almost instantly, and decided to stay.

What job did you have before that?

I was a journalist. I worked as a staff writer and editor for several newspapers and magazines in Connecticut, and eventually became a freelance journalist specializing in marine environmental issues.

What do you like most about your job?

I love that I come to work every day with a primary goal of helping someone. I love the challenge of answering reference questions. I love the joy of finding the perfect book for someone. I love working in a library small enough to know my patrons as individuals. I love that every day is different. I never know who will walk through the doors, or what they may need.

What’s your favorite book?

Ha. That’s funny. My favorite book is usually the one I’m reading right now.

Name and job title:

Kristin Maloney, assistant director and youth services librarian.

How long have you worked here?

Twenty-four years.

How did you come to be a librarian?

There were no teaching jobs available at the time, so I got a job as a librarian in Chilmark. I was teaching elementary school and preschool before that.

What do you like most about your job?

I love being with children and getting them excited about books and stories. It is always rewarding to recommend books for kids that they like. I do two “Stories and Songs” programs a week. I incorporate a lot of music and drama to excite kids about stories and books. The Summer Reading Program is a lot of fun. I get to talk with the kids about what they are reading and make book suggestions.

What’s your favorite book?

I can’t name one book, but some of my favorite authors are Barbara Kingsolver, Louise Erdrich, Niall Williams, Alexandra Fuller and Jeanette Walls.

Name and job title:Irene Tewksbury, assistant librarian. My duties are circulation supervisor, collection development, cataloging, marketing and public relations, head of interlibrary loan services, and I do an afterschool program on Wednesdays. A jack of all trades!

How long have you worked here?

Seven years.

How did you come to be a librarian?

I have always loved books and reading, and took classes in writing and illustrating children’s books. I was an artist who painted furniture and smaller gifts like boxes and frames that I sold at the Artisans Festivals, Flea Market, and Christmas fairs. The rest of the year, I was painting alone all day, so I thought, I love reading and talking books with people, so I’d try to work part-time at a library, and then do both jobs as an artist/librarian! That way I could paint but still talk to others during the day!

What job did you have previously?

I was the youth services programs coordinator at the Vineyard Haven library, and then the children’s librarian in Oak Bluffs. I took a summer off, and through the Martha’s Vineyard Library Association meetings, where I’m treasurer, I got to know librarians from other towns. When Chilmark needed help, I came here, loved it, found my library heaven and stayed!

What do you like most about your job?

I love the people the most. A close second are the books and movies. I really love reading about and choosing the movies for the library. My favorite parts of my job are my afterschool program activities and designing the signs for library events.

The afterschool program is for one hour on Wednesday afternoons. I carefully choose books to read to the kids, and we do a craft related to the theme.

What’s your favorite book?

Oh, this is a really hard question for someone who reads all the time! As a child, one of my favorites was “The Secret Garden.” Lately I have loved reading “All The Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr, which got me on a WW II fiction kick! I also love reading local author Geraldine Brooks, especially “The People of the Book.”

Today Chilmark has the highest per capita circulation in the commonwealth — just over 60,000 items go out the door each year. “Not bad for a community of 900!” boasts library director Ebba Hierta.