Branching out

No longer just a place for reading and whispering, libraries are now vibrant cultural and community centers

By Taryn Plumb
Globe Correspondent / December 4, 2011
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SWAMPSCOTT - They mingled and munched on hors d’oeuvres, swirled and sniffed samples of wine - reds, whites, Italian Prosecco, Chilean varieties.

“There was a lot of laughter, everybody was just enjoying themselves,’’ Patricia Cardenas of Swampscott said of a recent evening wine tasting. “It was a casual, but very wonderful, way to start off a weekend.’’

And the setting for this oenophile event?

The Swampscott Public Library.

That’s right, the library - near the stacks of Virgil and the “Twilight’’ saga, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Stephen King.

Libraries are no longer hushed places where librarians stamp books and dole out the dreaded “shush’’ warning all day long. Despite widely felt budget cuts and troubles, they’re morphing into the cultural centers of the 21st century, offering a melange of events and programs - sometimes unusual, sometimes unexpected - to attract patrons across the age spectrum.

“In the past, libraries were to some extent book warehouses,’’ said Beth Mazin, director of Andover’s Memorial Hall Library. But now, “we’re on a transition to becoming more of a community center.’’

Indeed, events range from workshops on bonsai trees, Hummel figurines, cooking, dancing, and flower arranging for adults to Yu-Gi-Oh! tournaments, gaming days, paper-airplane-making sessions, improv skits, and manga/anime clubs for tweens and teens. Patrons can also check out anything from e-readers like the Kindle to desktop telescopes (not to mention good old-fashioned, dust-jacket-covered books).

Libraries are “much more active and vibrant places now,’’ said Kirsten Underwood, head of reference services at Nevins Memorial Library in Methuen. “There are so many opportunities for things to do.’’

And sometimes, that includes simply finding a safe haven. As Mazin pointed out, during long-term power outages in most of the town after Tropical Storm Irene and the late-October snowstorm, the Andover library, which was not affected, extended its hours, served coffee, and set up additional seating areas and power strips, becoming a sort of day shelter as people crammed in.

During the rest of the year, meanwhile, the library offers concerts once a month (opera from the Renaissance era, a cappella, Irish music) as well as conversational English groups, fishing and genealogy programs, and pajama parties for children, according to Mazin. Events have been so popular, in fact, that the library has a cache of 7,000 e-mail addresses for e-mail blasts.

Similarly, nearby Nevins has been doing a good amount of cooking and festive-themed demonstrations leading up to the holidays, and most recently the library hosted a “Forensic Science Roadshow.’’

Before a rapt crowd of children, adults, and a group of aspiring crime-scene investigators from Central Catholic High School, retired criminologist Paul Zambella showed off fingerprinting and metal detecting techniques, and demonstrated how to use dyes and crime lights.

A quite different event was Swampscott’s wine tasting; the library held its first in the fall, and a second - featuring holiday-themed wines and pairings - just before Thanksgiving. Led by wine experts Maia Gosselin and Brandy Rand, both were fund-raisers, costing $20 per person and benefiting the Friends of the Swampscott Public Library, according to director Alyce Deveau.

Other programs at the library, meanwhile, have included chocolate-tasting parties, lectures on town history and its older houses, and a recent robot demonstration.

“We’re trying to attract a different age element into the library,’’ said Deveau. “We get a lot of senior citizens and a lot of children, but we tend not to get a whole lot of people in their 30s and 40s unless they come with their children.’’

Underwood agreed that Nevins in Methuen has been ramping up its programming over the past few years as well. “We’re trying to appeal to different interests,’’ she said.

Convenience is another big factor.

Memorial Hall Library in Andover, for instance, installed two self-checkouts in September, paid for through a $51,000 capital improvement article approved by town vote, according to Mazin.

“People are busy these days; it saves them time,’’ she said, explaining that all patrons have to do is scan their library card and books and they’re on their way with a due-date receipt. “It also saves some staff time. It’s more economical all around.’’

Still, a hallmark of the 21st century is that books - or their electronic equivalents - aren’t the only items being checked out. Through a program initiated by the New Hampshire Astronomical Society, Granite Staters can even borrow telescopes.

About 30 libraries up and down the state have an Orion StarBlast table-top telescope that can be borrowed for free, and kept for anywhere from three days to two weeks, according to the program’s originator and administrator, Marc Stowbridge. As a supplement, each comes with an attached satchel stocked with a head lamp, a pocket constellation guide, and a laminated, spiral-bound instruction manual.

“You can just give it a twist like you would a camera, focus on a big swath of sky, then focus [closer in] on something once you’ve found it,’’ Stowbridge explained.

The program was launched in Tamworth in fall 2009, and locally, stargazers can check telescopes out from a half-dozen locations, including Hampton Falls Free Library, Seabrook Library, and Portsmouth Public Library, among others. (The latter has a nine-month waiting list, according to Stowbridge.)

And there are more to come: A grant from Oceanside Photo and Telescope will enable the group to place 25 more sky-watching devices at state libraries between now and the end of the year, Stowbridge said.

Ultimately, he noted, it’s not just literacy that’s important, but “science literacy,’’ which he says has been “dismal’’ for years. The hope is that the telescopes will increase interest in science, but, he said, they’re really for “anybody interested in finding their place among the infinites.’’

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Trends in public libraries

Trends in public libraries

Libraries have always stored large collections of books but with the advent of digital media, libraries have evolved to cater to digital sources, resources and services. Boston Globe , 11/23/11

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