Way beyond books: How libraries have changed

They've evolved into community centers, where you can start a business, find answers to social services questions -- even get something repaired
A. Issac Pulver and Karen Bradley are directors of the public libraries in Saratoga Springs and Schenectady, respectively.
A. Issac Pulver and Karen Bradley are directors of the public libraries in Saratoga Springs and Schenectady, respectively.

Decades ago, the Schenectady County Public Library was perhaps a quieter place. 

Historians, engineers and other academics took to the stacks of books to seek out answers to in-depth research questions, often settling into a study carrel to pore through the library’s print indexes. 

“Those years we were a scholarly resource for the community. People came to us for really in-depth research. . . . People looked on us as repositories of books,” said Karen Bradley, the SCPL director.  

What patrons find today is not so much a repository for books — although there are still plenty of those — but a space filled with people of all ages attending programs, learning new crafts, working on their small business or reading a book. 

Similar scenes can be found at libraries across the Capital Region. 

“Libraries have gone from places of solitude to real community spaces where people gather to learn together. We still provide the silent study space but it’s the smallest part of the library,” said A. Issac Pulver, the library director at the Saratoga Springs Public Library. 

“You always hear individuals say ‘There’s Google. Do you need libraries anymore?’ ” Bradley said. 

She started working at the Schenectady County Public Library’s central branch — which was recently renamed the Karen B. Johnson Library  —  more than two decades ago, around the same time as Mary Anne Warner, the adult services co ordinator. At the time, librarians still used a physical card catalog, though they digitized it a few years later. 

For some of the larger community libraries in the Capital Region, the collection size (the physical copies of books and other media), has gone down over the years, due to the changing expectations of libraries. 

“The collection was probably twice the size … when I first started here but I think we circulate about the same amount. I don’t know what the door counts are but it wouldn’t surprise me if they were much higher than before,” Warner said. 

Books and DVDs and audiobooks remain popular, and some libraries, like the Guilderland Public Library, have started offering board games, as well as folding tables, GoPros, metal detectors and more. The Saratoga Public Library offers kits that show people how to create stop motion animation videos or how to play the ukulele. The Clifton Park-Halfmoon Public Library’s collection includes a telescope, board games and a hiking backpack. 

More programming

However, at most local library locations, space has become more valuable over the years, as libraries have started to offer more and more programming. 

“This idea of the library as a community center has really been growing. Our programming numbers, at least for adults, are up 37 percent this year and it’s because we’re trying new stuff and we’re building new partnerships,” said Leah LaFera, the adult programming coordinator at SCPL, late last year. 

That might include a family craft evening, a new mom’s group, a computer skills class, a “Hamilton” sing-along or an author visit. 

Many of these programs and author visits are sponsored by The Friends of the Schenectady County Public Library. 

One particularly successful program that started at SCPL is the Repair Cafe. Dave West, a Niskayuna resident, first approached Bradley in 2017 with the idea of having volunteers come together and work to fix whatever gadgets or household products the community needs to be fixed. The volunteers would not only fix the items but show the owners how to do it themselves. 

According to Bradley, it’s been a huge success and has sparked other Repair Cafes around the Capital Region. 

Over the last year or so, one of the most popular programs at the Clifton Park-Halfmoon Public Library is “Cutting the Cord,” where attendees learn how to navigate without cable. 

While libraries around the area are offering more programming options, Alexandra Gutelius, the director of the library, has noticed that people often come to the library simply to use the space. 

“I was here for a meeting [one] night and I looked over at the second floor and there was a group of about 15 girls and they’d pushed the tables together and they were having a code-a-thon, spontaneously. They didn’t book a room, they just came here because . . . it’s a comfortable place to be,” Gutelius said. 

Students and tutors often use their local library as a study space.

Many people also use local libraries as a co-working site or a site to work on their small businesses. Or, like author Steve Sheinkin, they’re working on their latest book. 

Sheinkin wrote one of his first books that were shortlisted for a National Book Award in the Saratoga Public Library, according to Pulver. 

Utilizing space

Each of the librarians that The Gazette spoke with recently, said that space was a concern. Most were reevaluating how to better use the physical space to accommodate the collections, programming and patrons. 

“There’s very few places in the community where you can just go. You can go to a coffee shop, but you kinda got to buy a cup of coffee. So they really are using our space. We offered over 1,700 programs last year. We also had another 500 organizations and groups that booked our rooms for their programs,” Gutelius said.

Those programs vary from library to library, based on the needs of the community. 

“That’s one of the interesting things about our library system is that we’re nine locations. With our nine locations, we cover everything from well below poverty-level to pretty much the one-percent. Because we have that [diversity] in such a small geographic area, we have to cover every demographic possible,” said Doug Bixler, the design and marketing manager at SCPL. 

The same rings true for the Saratoga Springs Public Library, which stretches across 110 miles, from Lake Desolation to Saratoga Lake. It combines the urban areas in the county with rural areas. It also comes with a variety of income levels and a widening gap between the lowest and highest income levels. 

“Libraries are a front line place for people to gain access to social services. . . . Libraries across the country are hiring social workers to be on staff as the income divide across the country [widens],” Pulver said. 

While the Spa City library hasn’t hired a social worker, it has partnered with social services agencies to ensure that librarians know where to send people in need, something that the SCPL has also done. 

“In addition to [being] an information resource, my staff are trained in-network with our community providers. Libraries seem to be the most trusted institutions in this country at this time so [people] come to us for everything. . . . People come in very stressed and . . . you might say we put half a social worker hat on. People are really struggling and looking for assistance,” Bradley said. 

Several of the community providers like the Schenectady Community Action Program have regular hours at the library. 

“We can’t be all things to all people but we need to get them connected to the right [place]. Around the country, libraries have become the hearts of a community and during the very troubling times that have happened in our country, libraries have been the go-to place in a time of crisis. It happened here [on] 9/11. People reached out to us [because] they needed a human on the phone. People were desperate that day trying to get set up with an email account because they couldn’t connect with their child who was in a building in New York. [With] racial situations in our country, libraries are [a] safe, neutral and trusted place. We serve all people,” Bradley said. 

To maintain that reputation, there are high expectations for librarians and those working at the reference desks. All the librarians at SCPL are Narcan trained, in case of an overdose on library grounds. 

“[Patrons] think we do everything from their taxes to their medical ailments because they don’t trust the doctor or they’ve come and laid out their pills. Years ago, people were putting pills on the counter and we had to put the PDR [Physicians’ Desk Reference] out,” Bradley said. 

While working on the reference desk, LaFera has had people ask her to repair zippers and repair a string that was stuck in a hoodie. 

“They’re very comfortable with us. I was downstairs talking to someone at reference [and] this older gentleman came up and he wasn’t embarrassed to tell me . . . ‘You know, I really can’t read well,’ ” Bradley said. 

She led him to children’s nonfiction, to topics he was actually interested in reading and it really started to click for him. 

Assisting with census

In 2020, these trusted institutions will take up more civic duties. 

“Libraries are going to be on the front line of the census for 2020. The funds are being released from the state to counties for the census and census education. All of us work with our immigrant families, our poor families, our community partners [and] everyone is very concerned about the count,” Bradley said. 

SCPL will serve as a place for people who don’t access to the internet at home to answer the Census Survey, which librarians hope will lead to a more accurate picture of that makeup of the United States. It officially launches on April 1 and it will be the first time that the census will primarily be conducted online. According to Library Journal, librarians will be expected to answer questions about how to fill out the forms and what will be done with the data. 

The SCPL will also be a polling place in the 2020 presidential primary, for which officials are anticipating a high voter turnout. 

Amidst those civic duties, the library will remain a place to bring one’s child for story hour, to use as a co-working space (which has become fairly popular recently), to learn a new language or to check out a stack of books from the New York Times Bestseller list. 

As Susan Orlean writes in “The Library Book,” “The library is a gathering pool of narratives and of the people who come to find them. It is where we can glimpse immortality; in the library, we can live forever.”

Can you sign it out?

Over the years, libraries around the Capital Region have started to offer some truly nontraditional items, from telescopes to fishing poles. Here’s a glimpse at some of the most popular in the area: 

Museum passes: These can be found at most libraries in the Capital Region and can be used to get into museums like the Clark, miSci or the Hyde Collection. 

Empire State Passes: The Saratoga Springs Public Library started carrying these last year. The passes give access to any New York State Park. 

Fishing poles: Scotia-Glenville Public Library rents them out as does the Guilderland Public Library. 

3D VR Headset: This device hooks up to a cell phone and allows the user to play 3D games and watch 3D movies. It’s a part of the Guilderland Public Library catalog. 

Wifi Hotspots: The Saratoga Public Library and the Guilderland Public Library have these. They allow patrons to have access to free wifi even when they’re nowhere near the library. 

Folding tables: These are popular items at Guilderland Public Library. People can sign them out for family gatherings, garage sales, etc.  

Telescope: For those who want to bring the stars a bit closer, the Clifton Park-Halfmoon Public Library’s catalog includes a telescope. 

Bike Rodeo kits: The Schenectady County Public Library’s central branch, the Karen B. Johnson Library, recently began offering these for people who want to help teach children how to ride a bike.  

Board games: Both the Clifton Park-Halfmoon Public Library and the Guilderland Public Library have board game collections that range from family games to hobby games. 

Hiking backpacks: The Clifton Park-Halfmoon Public Library and Saratoga Public Library both carry backpacks that are perfect for day hikes. They include maps and key hiking information for local trails.  

Lawn games: The Saratoga Public Library rents out lawn games like croquet and corn hole.

Get Better Kits: When you have a sick child at home, the librarians at the Saratoga Public Library will bundle up a bunch of stories about feeling better.

Stop Motion Animation Kit: This kit, available at the Saratoga Public Library, takes people through the steps of creating a stop motion animation video with one’s cell phone. It also includes figurines. 

Auxiliary cables: At Saratoga Springs Public Library one of the most popularly checked out items is an auxiliary cable, mostly because many cars no longer have CD players. 

Categories: Life and Arts

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