Island library directors create the ‘Third Space’

Island libraries today go far beyond a place for checking out books.

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According to Albert Einstein, the only thing that you absolutely have to know is the location of the library. That makes us very lucky here on Martha’s Vineyard, because we have six to choose from. In a week’s time one could enjoy Dumbledore’s Army, a monthly gathering for Harry Potter fans in West Tisbury; radio games in Edgartown with WMVY’s Laurel Reddington; stargazing and birdwatching activities in Chilmark; Cooking with Carolina in Oak Bluffs; a Woods Hole scientist’s presentation in Vineyard Haven; and making oatmeal soap in Aquinnah.

Overseeing these and countless other activities is the Martha’s Vineyard Library Association. The MVLA is comprised of the six Island library directors: Aquinnah’s Rosa Parker, Chilmark’s Ebba Hierta, Edgartown’s Lisa Sherman, Oak Bluffs’ Allyson Malik, Vineyard Haven’s Amy Ryan, and West Tisbury’s Beth Kramer.

This close-knit group meets officially four times a year, and is in regular contact in between. “The MVLA is one entity,” said Kramer. “We work in a positive, collaborative way. There’s strength in numbers, and we all have different strengths.”

It is the MVLA and its capable staffs who provide us with stimulating programs and who ensure that every patron who passes through their library doors, whether for the first or hundredth time, will enter what librarians call a “Third Space.” It is not home, it is not work or school. It is a haven where any person can come and simply be … with no expectations, no money down, and everything from refreshments to “The History of the Roman Empire” to the daily newspaper at his or her fingertips.

The Times wanted to learn more about the directors and their working world: their goals and strategies, their challenges and rewards. From extensive conversations with these dedicated women, four themes emerged.

Creating the Third Space

Ryan (Vineyard Haven): The Third Space idea started with Internet cafes … people seeking a neutral place to work and relax. It’s something that fills a sociological need. It was adopted by the library world because it fits.

Parker (Aquinnah): The promise that every library makes to their community is, “We are here for you, to listen, to encourage, to share, to empower.” To listen is one of our biggest responsibilities.

Sherman (Edgartown): People want to be with others. They want to relax, maybe attend a program. They also want a comfortable place. If there’s a leaky roof, I need to get it fixed. I’m responsible for the building.

Hierta (Chilmark): We’re pretty remote up here. We want to give people a reason to get out of their house. In the winter we have a cafe with hot beverages and sometimes pastries. Or you can bring in your lunch and avoid the cold. Breaking bread with people adds a different dimension to any interaction.

Malik (Oak Bluffs): There’s been an explosion in youth volunteering this year. The kids walk or bike over from school. They get on the computers, do homework, hang out with friends. Many of them want to help. They shelve, create crafts for younger kids, set up for events. They’re building skills they’ll need as adults.

Kramer (West Tisbury): We see impromptu gatherings all the time, often in the children’s room. Whatever the program or the materials might be, they’re really just catalysts for parents and grandparents to meet and talk. The energy is definitely one of community bonding.

Partnering and collaborations

Ryan: I’m the co-chair of the Vineyard Haven Harbor Cultural District. The library partners with the Hebrew Center, Playhouse, Film Center, and other groups to provide cultural programming.

Parker: We have partnered with the Aquinnah Cultural Center and the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe, among others, and we plan to continue those collaborations.

Malik: We partner with the Cottagers in organizing the African American Cultural Festival every summer. It is a free, educational event featuring activities for all age groups.

Sherman: Along with other nonprofits, we partner with the FARM Institute, which brings animals in, and with Island Grown Initiative, which provides free community lunch. In conjunction with Anchors, we offer assistance with taxes.

Kramer: We collaborate with Howes House by offering tech assistance and directing patrons to HH programs.

Hierta: The MVLA funds various collaborative efforts, such as an annual Mini-Maker Faire at Ag Hall. We also bring in Massachusetts Memories Roadshow from Boston to help families archive family photos and memories.

Summer vs. off-season

Hierta: For us there’s a big seasonal difference. In the summer we add a range of programs, including a weekly lecture series. In the winter, Chilmark library becomes the town’s off-season living room, a cozy place to get in out of the cold and see friends.

Malik: In the summer we connect the world to Oak Bluffs, offering history and cultural events that represent our town. In the off-season, it’s the opposite; we connect Oak Bluffs to the broader world … perhaps through a resident’s recent travel experience. We want to bring diverse people together around a common interest.

Kramer: There’s no off-season in West Tisbury. Because we’re centrally located, we host a wide range of daytime and evening events year-round. We do vary our programs in the summer, including a summer-kickoff Reading Series. In winter we offer a community photography show for all ages, balance, dance, and Pilates classes, and other activities.

Parker: We are a very small library. We utilize our outdoor space during the warmer months by offering programs such as Music on the Deck in partnership with Alex’s Place of the YMCA and MVY radio.

Sherman: The library becomes a different place in summer. It’s as crowded as ever, but there’s a sense of living vicariously through all the new people who walk through our doors.

Ryan: There’s not much difference between seasons for us in Vineyard Haven. Our population change is less than other Island towns. There are actually more winter programs, because we are open seven days a week off-season.

Keeping our history alive

Hierta: Ours is the oldest library on the Island. Part of the building was the home of Kate West, the last living member of the historic deaf community. We have a Chilmark Deaf Community Digital Archive available to patrons.

Ryan: Vineyard Haven has a significant literary and maritime history, which is reflected in our catalogue of books.

Sherman: We have a microfilm reader available for public use, with Vineyard Gazette reels dating back to 1846. We also have the full archives of The MV Times, as well as the Cottage City Star (1879–84) and the MV Herald (1887–1973).

Parker: We celebrate the Wampanoag history and culture in many ways, mainly through our resources and programs. The historic red schoolhouse that houses the library is also something that we factor in. (We still have community members who went to school in that building.) Additionally, the bodies of victims from great shipwrecks of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were laid out at the library for their families to identify. If only the walls could talk.

Kramer: The West Tisbury library has a Vineyard collection that houses many books specific to the Island and to the town of West Tisbury — both about Martha’s Vineyard and/or written by authors who have a Vineyard connection.

Malik: Our library is the permanent home of a wide collection of materials related to African American history on the Island. That includes research materials connected to the African American Heritage Trail.

Is there anything else you’d like to say about your job?

Malik: When we connect someone to information, to an idea … then we’re creating a spark. It is said that 40 percent of future jobs don’t exist now. Libraries can help children prepare for the world that awaits them.

Ryan: For some patrons, it’s like the old elephant metaphor. They see one aspect of the library, and don’t realize how much more there is. One of our challenges is to broaden their understanding of what we provide.

Hierta: A library is a great equalizer. No one is special. An 8-year-old asking for a book on puppies is treated the same as a CEO wanting to use a computer. Every day is a surprise. You never know who will walk through the door and what they’ll need.

Sherman: Thirty to 50 kids are here after school for some downtime. They socialize, do homework. They like to help out; it makes them feel that it’s their space. I watch them sometimes and wonder, Which of you wants to be a librarian?

Kramer: Even with Kindles and online options, people still love to be around books.

Parker: I have not had the pleasure of being Bruce the Bear, but I am very familiar with Corduroy, who is also a bear. Come to think of it, I may have ridden in a fire truck as Clifford the Big Red Dog.