Is the Internet — where it’s so easy to Google information — turning public libraries into dinosaurs? Conventional wisdom says “Yes.” State Librarian Michael York says “Nonsense.” He points to the fact that there is a library in every community in New Hampshire — “234 communities and 234 libraries, more libraries than McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts.” And, he says, a recent UNH survey showed 80 percent of the people in the state say they use their library on a regular basis.
York says people will continue to use libraries because they offer “unvarnished information that is validated as being correct,” something the Internet cannot do. “If you Google something,” York adds, “you can get 500,000 hits; it’s like trying to get a drink from a garden hose.”
What about the other flank in the competition — large book retailers like Borders and Barnes & Noble? “Frankly, we’ve stolen some marketing ideas from them,” says York. “There are now cafés in many public libraries.” Many also offer the downloading of audio books to MP3 players.
One sign that libraries are competing successfully — they need more space for their programs. “We wanted new space to have more things for the community,” says Randy Bough, the library director in Laconia. The programs — from “Baby Yoga” to book discussions and lectures — supplement the main mission of the library. “Books are still the backbone of the library,” Bough says. “That’s why most people still come, to check out books.”
Some may also be attracted by the ornate architecture of the 1903 original building and its most recent addition, completed in 2004. The Gale Memorial Building is in the Romanesque revival style that features turrets, carved woodwork, arched panel doors and a large, circular stained glass skylight. The library so impressed the owners of Berkshire Publishing Company in western Massachusetts that it is one of only 80 public libraries in the country featured in their recently published “Heart of the Community: The Libraries We Love.”
Each library, old or new, has its distinctive features, York notes. At the Hopkinton library in Contoocook, a fireplace gives a homey feel to the main reading room, and two screened-in porches offer patrons the opportunity to sit and read while observing a soccer game or some other sporting event in the athletic fields out back. The brand new and recently opened library in Portsmouth even has a café for those who like to sip coffee while they read or converse.
“Libraries have become places where people congregate, to sit down and peruse the newspaper or use a laptop computer, or work with somebody else,” says, Mary Ann List, the library director. “One of the things people like to do with that is have a cup of coffee or soda or something.” So coffee and soft drinks are available in the attractive café, which opens onto a courtyard out back. Even before moving into its new facility, Portsmouth’s library was given honorable mention in the “Heart of the Community” book, as was the library in Peterborough.
Portsmouth’s new brick and cement facility at 175 Parrot Ave. features a glass tower and large windows to let in plenty of natural light. And with 38,000 square feet, it has more than twice the space available at the former site at the corner of Islington and Middle Street. It is a certified “green” building, environmentally friendly and energy efficient. “It’s a lot of building for $8 million,” says List.
Janet Angus doesn’t say so, but she may feel at times she would kill for the space Portsmouth library has. The Merrimack Public Library, serving a community of 27,000, has just under 12,000 square feet, including the addition that was done in 1979.
“We’re running out of space for materials,” says Angus, the library director. “We only have one meeting room. We used to have three… Computer workstations take up space and they’re very popular. We have offsite storage space, so we have some books in storage.”
The library offers a variety of live entertainment for both children and adults. “We just had a recital of the music from ‘The Nutcracker,’” says Angus. “We have costumed actors come in to portray historic figures.” Mark Twain and Galileo have been among the distinguished visitors to Merrimack Public Library. “We’re doing the best we can with the space we have,” says Angus.
The library in Peterborough is “the first publicly funded library, open to the community without charge, established by town meeting in Peterborough in 1833,” says Price. Yet the library “didn’t have a permanent home until 1892. And, in fact, that building still stands,” along with additions built in 1956 and ’78. A portico was recently added to the original building and the local garden club does landscaping out front.
Meanwhile, the town has grown from about 4,000 at the time of the ’78 addition to some 6,000 today. And Peterborough has always been a reading town, says Price, proudly noting that two-thirds of the residents have library cards. Residents of neighboring towns also frequent the library, he says.
“Owing to the way mountain roads are in the area, a lot of people from adjoining communities use this as sort of a regional library for people who can’t get over the mountain to Keene.”
In the comparative flatlands along the well-traveled “Golden Triangle,” the ten-year-old white, wooden library building in the heart of historic Bedford Village is a well used reading and meeting site, as well as primary source of information about the town.
“When I moved to New Hampshire, I called Fran Wiggin, (then) the town librarian, to ask about what kind of town Bedford was,” says Mary Ann Senatro, now the town’s library director. “She told me it would be a great place to live and raise a family..”
New Hampshire also has nine Carnegie libraries, started early last century with endowments from the famous industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.
“It allowed communities to build libraries that ordinarily would have a difficult time doing that,” York says. Carnegie “was very big on the fact that public libraries provided an opportunity to everybody who would be able to read. A child who had an education through the third grade would be able to use the public library as the people’s university.”
One of New Hampshire’s Carnegie libraries is in the little town of Whitefield, north of Franconia Notch. Call the library during the 22 hours a week it is open and you will have no trouble getting through to librarian Sandy Holz. She is usually the one who answers the phone.
“I’m the person in circulation, the person in reference, in the children’s room, in the adult library, in computer technology and in janitorial,” says Holz, whose staff consists of “one assistant and some subs.” The library, like the town, is small, but 1,200 card-holding borrowers among 1,900 residents show a pretty healthy interest in the local library. The one-story building includes the circulation desk, the children’s room, the reference room and the stacks. There are audio tapes, videos and, bridging the gap between the early 20th and early 21st centuries, the library started with a grant from the Carnegie foundations has computers donated by Bill Gates. But even in the computer age, people in a small town like Whitefield tend to know their librarian personally.
“My husband and I run a gun store in town,” says Holz. “And one of the funniest things that ever happened to me is that my husband had ads running on cable TV. And people told me that when they saw me in the ads, it reminded them to bring back their library books. Of course, I’m not going to plug anybody for overdue books,” she laughs.
But she’d like the borrowers to return them anyway. NH
This article appears in the February 2007 issue of New Hampshire Magazine