Li­braries adapt to com­mu­nity needs

‘We are so much more than what you find in a book’

New Haven Register (Sunday) (New Haven, CT) - - FRONT PAGE - By Vik­to­ria Sundqvist

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 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.

Peter Hviz­dak / Hearst Con­necti­cut Me­dia

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.

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