Libraries adapt to community needs
‘We are so much more than what you find in a book’
Think your local library is no longer relevant? Think again.
Now more than ever, people are flocking to local libraries for help with anything from learning a new job or writing skills to filling out TSA PreCheck or passport applications. Through one of the many library programs offered across the state, you could also learn about anything from beer to architecture.
There are more than 170 public libraries in Connecticut, in addition to government libraries or those in schools or universities. Attendance and usage at most have steadily increased in the past few years, several library directors said — thanks to the institutions reinventing themselves, their facilities and the programs they offer.
“In terms of numbers, our attendance continues to grow year by year,” said Ramona Burkey, director of the Russell Library in Middletown. “We see library users of all ages and backgrounds … from babies and toddlers with their caregivers to teens to retirees.”
Increased hours of operation since fall 2016 have boosted attendance, the New Haven Free Public Library Director Martha Brogan said.
“Together, the New Haven Free Public Library’s five physical locations and Readmobile welcome over 540,000 visitors through its doors annually, making it one of the, if not the most visited cultural institution in the city,” she said.
At the Woodbridge Town Library, Director Eric Werthmann said attendance has also been heading “slowly but steadily up.”
“We’re always looking for new, interesting kinds of programs to offer and we’re also always trying to improve our publicity efforts,” he said. “We host all kinds of programs — from movie screenings to jazz concerts, and from cooking demonstrations to history lectures.”
At the Norwalk Public Library, attendance has skyrocketed. The library has seen a 60 percent increase in patrons in the past four years — from 391,671 visitors in 2014 to 640,790 in 2018 — despite the library decreasing its circulation and print materials, Library Director Christine Bradley said.
“The big change has been in the increase and diversity of library programs for adults,” Bradley said. “The public library has become the place for adults of all ages to go for information and for education.”
Since the Wilton Library expanded in 2005, attendance there also has burgeoned, said Janet Crystal, marketing and communications manager.
“We took to heart a ‘build it and they will come’ attitude with what the new space provided us,” Crystal said. “Our facility is very adaptable to the needs of our programming and vice versa …”
The senior population is one of the fastest growing groups in Wilton, she said.
“Our programming for seniors is engaging, diverse and often serves as a catalyst for new friendships,” Crystal said.
Burkey said her library in Middletown offers programs such as “Medicare Basics” to the older patrons, but one of her goals is to increase library usage by younger adults.
“Middletown is a small city is that is really thriving and growing, so we can expect to see more millennials living and working here,” she said. “We want to be sure we are ready to provide services that that population needs and wants, and that fit their lifestyle.”
Programs & Technology
Increasingly, libraries are upping their game on technology and trying to cater to people’s needs.
For example, Clark Memorial Library in Bethany offers a WiFi hotspot that town residents can check out for up to four weeks. It has been very popular in the two years it’s been offered, Director Melissa CanhamClyne said, and has been checked out by people who commute on the train, residents going away for a weekend or those who have recently moved and not yet gained internet access at home. Branford, Guilford, West Haven, New London and Norwich also offer the hotspots, Canham-Clyne said. “Library usage reflects evolving user lifestyles and expectations,” Brogan said. “We notice that people are using the library differently.”
After upgrading to highspeed, gigabit broadband and Wi-Fi at all five New Haven library locations, Wi-Fi usage increased 80 percent between fiscal years 2016 to 2018, she said. In response, the library invested in new digital learning tools like Lynda.com or JobNow and streaming from Hoopla, Overdrive and Kanopy, Brogan said.
People coming in to borrow CDs or movies on DVD have decreased at many of the libraries.
“The biggest shift we’ve seen is a steady decline in the circulation of our DVDs, which I attribute to people using streaming services, like Netflix,” said Claudia Cayne, director of Scoville Memorial Library in Salisbury.
“We renovated our interior in 2016 and since then we have seen more people come with their own computers and spend hours, if not the whole day, on their computer in the library,” Cayne said.
Often, people are just looking for a quiet place to read, study or conduct interviews. That’s why Danbury Public Library recently installed a four-person meeting pod that opened to the public in early November. It offers an HDMI hookup to a small TV for presentations, as well as a USB port to charge a smartphone.
The pod — available for two hours at a time by reservation or on a first-come, first-served basis — lets small groups of people meet in a noise-contained environment without taking up an entire meeting room, Assistant Director Katharine Chung said.
“They wanted more quiet space,” she said of the library patrons. “We’re just adapting to the community needs.”
But if you don’t want to visit the library in person, you can now borrow ebooks, audiobooks or fullcolor digital magazines with your library card straight from home from most libraries.
“Libraries are about knowledge,” said CanhamClyne. “We are so much more than what you find in a book.”
Museum passes to places such as the Children’s Museum in West Hartford, the Yale Peabody Museum in New Haven, Connecticut’s Old State House, Mystic Aquarium or the Norwalk Aquarium are also available to check out from most libraries. And some have taken that option a step further.
“We’ve been offering patrons the ability to print museum passes at home for a little over a year,” Werthmann said of the Woodbridge library. “This service is getting quite a bit of use and the response has been overwhelmingly positive.”
But with all the time people spend in front of computer screens, the staff at Russell Library in Middletown is striving for patrons to have a balance of physical and emotional health and is working to bring the community together.
“In the ‘Age of Screen Time,’ social isolation is a very real threat to our health,” Burkey said. “We all need to connect with one another on a human level, and since part of a public library’s mission is strengthening the community, we take that very seriously when planning our programming.”
Thinking outside the box
Concerts, author events, and afternoon film screenings can bring people out and bring people together. The Stratford Library has a public relations and programming office, and each week its leader, Tom Holehan, releases a detailed and often extensive list of events there for all ages. A couple of years ago, the Woodbridge Town Library decided to bring the movies outdoors, offering free outdoor movies on the green once a week during the summer, often to large crowds.
“A lot of cities and towns are doing outdoor movies and I really enjoyed them at various city parks when I lived in Chicago a few years ago,” said Werthmann, the director. “When I came here, it seemed like it would be a great way to get people to come out with their neighbors and enjoy some beautiful summer evenings.”
Any program involving live animals is usually a big hit as well, he said.
“We’ve had birds of prey, dog performers and a llama draw big crowds here over the past six months or so,” Werthmann said.
The New Haven Free Public Library opened Ives Squared in June, a newly renovated 5,820-square-foot maker space, co-working area and café.
“Over the last five months, we have had more than 4,000 people check into the space and offered nearly 150 wraparound programs and maker space trainings to more than 800 attendees,” said Brogan, the director there.
In the north western part of the state, Scoville Memorial Library offers a regular farmer’s market on the library lawn. Staff also visits local daycares weekly and offers writing and art workshops at the local elementary school.
In addition to a unique and popular Veterans Writing Group, which is making strides to publish its first book, the Russell Library offers programs on DNA testing, Medicare information, and a “Slime Science” program for children ages 9 to 12.
“We work very hard to keep up-to-date and relevant, so we target a lot of our programming and services on current events, trends and interests,” Burkey said. “For instance, right now we’re running an Immigrant Artists series of programs and exhibits, for which there has been heavy interest and attendance.”
The Wilton Library offers an “innovation station” and maker space that encourages STEAM learning, where you can watch a live beehive, illustrate your own comics or test a 3-D printer. However, the library’s most successful and unique project recently was its Human Library, Crystal said.
“Wilton had been dealing with instances of intolerance, prejudice and exclusion in the previous months,” the director said. This program was born out of the need to offer a safe place to learn about tolerance and diversity, she said.
The 22 “human books” were community members who volunteered to share their stories in order to break down barriers based on age, race, sexual orientation, religion, ability, lifestyle choices, or other aspects of their identity, she said.
“More than 250 readers showed up for conversations with the 22 ‘books,’” Crystal said. “In just a few short hours, Human Library participants gained understanding and compassion for others — their personal challenges, experiences and prejudices — and, at the same time, debunked their own preconceived notions.”
The project proved that the library can be a muchneeded center for the community, Crystal said.
“People come here to connect with one another and to take part in the sharing of ideas and information,” she said.
Luis Dominguez, of New Britain, works on his computer at the Woodbridge Town Library while waiting for a friend on Nov. 16.
Barbara Bessinger, of Woodbridge, peruses the bookshelves.