Stuffed animals watch a movie during the Stuffed Animal Sleepover at the New Providence Library. Credits: New Providence Public Library
Saba the penguin visited the New Providence library earlier this summer. Credits: Christy Potter Kass
Patrons enjoy the newly refurbished children's section of the Berkeley Heights Public Library. Credits: Christy Potter Kass
Stuffed animals work on a puzzle together during the Stuffed Animal Sleepover. Credits: New Providence Public Library
A teddy bear makes a dinosaur picture during the sleepover. Credits: New Providence Public Library
Evidence of childhood creativity is everywhere in the children's section of the Berkeley Heights Public Library, right down to "Darth Vader's Wedding War Base" (which even the librarian can't explain) built out of Legos. Credits: Christy Potter Kass
The children's section of the Berkeley Heights library was completely redone after last year's storm damage left it waterlogged. Credits: Christy Potter Kass
Book 'Em: Today's Libraries Combine the Modern with the Traditional
Monday, August 20, 2012 • 6:55am
The old, musty libraries where stern elderly women peer over the top of their glasses and tell you to “Shhh!” have checked out.
Libraries these days are places where you can read your email, check your stocks, join a book group, see the work of local artists, donate blood, read to a dog, or hang out with a penguin.
In other words… this is not your grandmother’s library.
Throughout the area, libraries are keeping up with the evolving needs of their towns by adding new programs, updated equipment and seeking out ways to keep the library where it has always been: at the heart of the community, a gathering place, a meeting point, or a pocket of solitude to escape from a hectic world.
“We always say we take care of people from the womb to the tomb,” said Diane O’Brien, director of the Library of the Chathams, a busy, cheerful place that serves the borough and the township from its central location on Main Street. She’s not exaggerating, either. Families with tiny kids buzz in and out of the front door, in hot pursuit of the latest toddler titles; business people stop by to grab books on tape or use the wireless internet; older people come to check their stocks on the television that runs prices, silently but constantly, overhead.
One table is set up with puzzles – it’s in the adult section and is surprisingly popular, O’Brien said. One patron in particular likes to come by on his way home from work and spend a little while working on a puzzle and unwinding before heading home. Kind of an Archie-Bunker-at-the-bar moment, but a whole lot safer to drive home from.
The Library of the Chathams is a community center in every sense of the word. Les Daniell, a widower in his 90s who lives in an apartment nearby, visits every day. After the snowstorm last fall, when the library reopened and the town began to recover from the damage, O’Brien said she noticed he hadn’t come in and decided she’d better check on him. She found out his son had come to pick him up and take him to his home until his father’s apartment had power again. A few days later, Daniell came into the library.
“He was crying when he came up to me, he said he couldn’t believe anyone would have been kind enough to check on him like that,” O’Brien said. “But to me, it was just the natural, right thing to do. I care about the people who come in here. We’re a community.”
That they are. O’Brien has published books for two of her patrons – Daniell, who writes poetry; and the late Harry Tower, Jr., whose letters home during WWII were done in the form of drawings. She has compiled the work of both men into softback, self-published titles, both of which are housed in the library’s reference section.
It’s only one of dozens of ways the library meets the needs of its patrons, whatever they are and however they may change over the years. Once upon a time, the librarian could be counted on to help you navigate the card catalogue or pull out just the right encyclopedia for you to write your research paper. Today, your local librarians can still help you write that paper, but now they’ll show you how to access online databases or reference books, or point you to a private study room. And for you nostalgic types who miss using the encyclopedia: if you ask really nicely, they might even show you where they’re kept. (Hint: it’s close to the microfilm.)
Not too many people use that type of reference anymore, though, and reference sections are often rearranged and those materials are removed to make space for what today’s library patrons want, like computers and big, comfortable chairs.
At the Berkeley Heights Public Library, Director Stephanie Bakos has also done some rearranging to allow more room for studying or working.
“We’re trying to repurpose space,” she said. “We need more room for people to feel they can sit and use their laptops, or people who want to gather in groups.”
Some of the change at the Berkeley Heights library wasn’t intentional, at least not at first. After last year’s storms, the basement – which houses the children’s section – found itself with severe water damage. After being closed for many weeks, it is now reopened and sports a fresh, new look, complete with hand-painted wall designs. There’s even a cat that looks so real, kids try to pet it.
Kids are always a huge part of every community library, which is why the children’s sections are so welcoming and why so many of the awesome programs are aimed at the younger set. In New Providence, Library Director Colleen Byrne said her favorite program was the Stuffed Animal Sleepover they had this summer. Just to clarify: the kids didn’t sleep over – their stuffed animals did.
“The kids left their favorite stuffed animal at the library for a sleepover,” Byrne explained. “In the morning, the kids returned to pick up their animal, and they received photos of all of the fun that the animals had, going to story time, watching a movie, reading books, and eating cake.”
Other programs at the New Providence library include an annual craft fair held every October, an art gallery featuring local artists, summer movies, and programs for adults like blood drives, an international film series, and a fall prevention program done in cooperation with SAGE Eldercare of Summit. Last month, 130 people crowded into one of the library’s meeting rooms to meet Saba, a penguin who came to visit from Jenkinson’s Aquarium down the shore. Animal programs are always popular, Byrne said.
While programs, groups and gatherings are an important part of any community library, not everyone needs the library in a physical sense, Bakos said. In another twist that could only come about in the modern age, many patrons are what the library calls “invisible users.” These non-traditionalists use the library’s online databases or recommended websites, but from the comfort of their own home, logging into the system with their library card.
It’s all part of progress, Bakos said, and relies on the same keen sense all good community librarians have of how to meet their patrons’ needs and still keep things interesting and fun.
Speaking of interesting and fun, at the Berkeley Heights library in recent weeks, there’s been a Wii game fest, a chess club meeting, Lego programs, Shakespeare in the Parking Lot, and every Friday, there’s a reading group of kids who read to dogs. Yeah, dogs. Two trained therapy dogs – a little one named Moose and a big one named Simber – sit with the kids, who read to them and even show them the pictures. It’s a good chance for kids to practice reading to an audience that never corrects them and doesn’t judge.
And that’s what it all comes down to, really: the books. Reading is the one constant, the unifying force that has always driven people to the library. In Chatham, the Friends of the Library have put boxes of donated books in the highly traveled parts of town, like the train stations and gyms. People can grab a book to read and when they’re done, drop it back in a box or pass it on to a friend.
“That’s what I mean when I say we try to take care of everyone,” O’Brien said. “Everyone who uses our library deserves to get what they want. That’s why we’re here.”
And they lived happily ever after.