Part Three: The Village Library

By Sean Corcoran
February 22, 2012


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When designing Cape Cod's newest library, which opens in Osterville at the end of March, architect Darren Malone, took into account the need for more shelving for DVDs, more computer plug-ins, lots of community space for both after-hour meetings and even the occasional rehearsal dinner for local weddings.

“I think that the biggest difference is that because of the ability for people to get library resources through the internet and other ways that the library today has to be much more about a broader community resource," Malone said, "a place for socialization, a place for community events as well as the typical resource as a repository for books, DVDs, and digital media items.”

The new building will provide a 21st century library for the locals and summer visitors. But one thing also was made clear to the folks overseeing its design and construction: If the villagers of Osterville were going to build a new, 5-and-a-half-million-dollar library, it was going to have a fireside reading room.

The West Tisbury Library on Martha's Vinyard is gearing up for a major renovation and expansion.
(Sean Corcoran/WCAI)

"You hear all the time that the people in the Fireside Reading room want to look out across, hey, who's coming and going at the Post Office across the street? So that still exists. As much as things have changed, there are still those things that are linked to the past."

The reading room is impressive, with high, wood ceilings, inlayed carpet and, a gas-fired stove. Osterville library trustee Cyndy Shulman says the reading room, and the library as a whole, are designed to be a gathering spot for neighbors.

"The library does reflect the community," she said. "You can see how beautiful this library is, and it shows the greatness of the community to support a library like this. Education, learning, family orientated events are very popular, very important to the community here."

Osterville is just one of Barnstable's seven libraries. Each village has its own. And although they receive some funding from the town, they are not town departments. They developed organically over the past 150 or so years, with villagers volunteering community book space in private homes before the buildings themselves were constructed.

Lucy Loomis is the library director at Sturgis Library in Barnstable Village. She says that many libraries on Cape Cod, and all of Barnstable's, are what's called association or private libraries. They are open to the public, but they are governed by a Board of Trustees, not the local selectmen.

"They've done 2 studies in Barnstable," she said, "one in the 1960s and one just a few years ago, to try and see if consolidation was in order. Do we need 7 libraries? But from both of the studies that were done they realized that when they went to the library, they were all really busy thriving libraries, they have this village personality that we really like here in Barnstable."

Several other Cape communities also have village libraries. And what's happened in Barnstable is over the years the different libraries have concentrated their collections in ways that reflect their residents.

"Cotuit has art collection," Loomis said. "Hyannis foreign language. Weldon has great cookbooks and a collection on Finnish people because lots of people there are from Finland. Marstons Mills just got a huge collection of theater materials. So, you know if you come here you're going to find a lot on maritime history. If you wanted more about business, Osterville might be the place to go."

The fact that about half of the Cape libraries are owned by associations has in some ways helped insulate them from town budget cuts. Fundraising has been more challenging during the recession, but with only about 30 percent of funding coming from the local municipality, the association libraries had more lee-way to avoid town-mandated staff cuts by going to other, private sources for funding.

Still, Virginia Hewitt, director of the Brooks Free Library in Harwich, says being part of a town-owned library -- as Harwich is -- also comes with its own benefits.

"One of the roles that I think a public library today, and one we’ve tried to work on and always needing to improve, but is if you are the information center for your town you really need to be tied into town gov’t. And I think most libraries on the Cape are pretty well tied into each other, with the CLAMS network. But, so we may see more and talk more with other librarians than we do with other town departments."

The CLAMS library network is the great connector among most of the region's public libraries. It's primary responsibility is to coordinates the sharing of about one-and-a-half million items among its 32 member libraries. But CLAMS also promotes communications between librarians.

Beth Kramer is the director of the West Tisbury Library on Martha's Vineyard -- a nationally-recognized library that is small in square-footage but beloved by the community. It's also on the cusp of joining the CLAMS system.

"One of the things that CLAMS will enable us to do is for patrons to be empowered to choose their own materials and would be used more for pickup than browsin," she said. "So that will be one of the changes that is going to happen. I think it will be right around the first of May this year we’ll be full members and the first thing they are going to enable us to do are some downloadable media that our patrons want. Which is something that we cannot offer right now."

The West Tisbury library also is beginning a $6 million renovation and addition project, with local supporters covering about a quarter of the costs.

“I would say this is a pretty special place," Kramer said. "I think that the island is very unique in the level of education and the support in general but to me West Tisbury exceeds any of the other libraries. I really do. I think it’s seen as important and truly truly valued.”

The state also is contributing to the project as part of its library building project, chipping in with a nearly $3 million grant. Rob Mayer is the director of the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners, which oversees the state's library construction program -- a program that has significantly benefited the Cape and Islands.

There are more public libraries than McDonald’s in the U.S.—
a total of 16,604, including branches.
ALA Office for Research & Statistics

"Falmouth has a major addition renovation project that opened maybe three years ago. Provincetown has completed a project. But we’ve also got projects in Truro, Orleans, Brewster, Chatham, Harwich. Nantucket had support from the public library construction program, as did Chilmark, Vineyard Haven, and Oak Bluffs. And we currently have West Tisbury has a potential grant. They are looking forward to an April town meeting vote to confirm their local funding and accept a grant award. And Eastham has a project that’s currently on our waiting list, which just means waiting for the flow of funds to catch up with their project. So there’s a lot of activity on the Cape and Islands with this program.”

The Cape's newest municipal library is in Mashpee, where the new building is four-times the size of the old. Its construction occurred during the deepest part of the recession, which actually helped with labor and material costs. But when it opened in 2010, the new Mashpee quickly ran into staffing trouble. The existing staff couldn't cover the entire library, and the town was reluctant to hire additional help.

Cathy Mahoney is the director of the Mashpee library, arriving this past summer from the Brewster Ladies Library. She says when the new building opened, it presented a lot of uncertainties, such as how many patrons would use it, how much it could cost to heat and cool, and other unknowns. Without adequate staffing, the decision was made to reduce hours.

"We took a reduction in hours from 37 to 32," Mahoney said, "and sort of worked it that way to provide the quality of service that you want rather than maybe having lines out the door or just not being able to deal with the patrons. They cut back on the open hours until they could figure out, how do we get more staffing in here, what do we need, and what are the hours now that we really do want to be open."

Now that the economy has eased a bit, Mashpee has been able to add staff and increase hours. The building is now open 42 hours a week, and traditional print circulation doubled from 2010 to 2011, with nearly 250,000 items being checked out.

“I think the town realizes now that the building is built and they see how well used it is and just what an asset it can be to the whole community," Mahoney said, "and that we have a very vocal user base. And that they want to see open. And they know that it’s priority."

Cape and Islands libraries have experienced marked increases in usage during the past few years, as more and more residents have looked to the libraries to provide computer access, to borrow movies and provide Internet service. What's clear is that the role of 21st century libraries is rapidly changing, with communities looking to their libraries to be not just book lenders and information providers, but also true community centers, a place where villagers, visitors and residents can come together.

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