During the height of pandemic lockdowns, many community members parked outside the Canajoharie Library to connect to the wireless internet.
That fact alone, shared Friday by Sue Friedlander, executive director and chief curator of the library and the Arkell Museum, encapsulates the gravity of what the arts and cultural facility on Erie Boulevard means to the community.
U.S. Representative Antonio Delgado, D-Rhinebeck, who represents New York’s 19th District, understands that sentiment. It’s why he nominated the Canajoharie Library and Arkell Museum for a 2022 National Medal for Museum and Library Service, the nation’s highest honor awarded to libraries and museums for service to their communities.
According to Friedlander, results will be out this spring.
It’s also why Delgado spent more than an hour touring the facility on Friday, listening intently as the historian guided him through everything from the Beech-Nut factory in the 1890s, whose engineers patented the vacuum jar, to an 1869 painting by Winslow Homer that, before coming to hang in the 1929 gallery space that was the inspiration of Bartlett Arkell, was once part of a larger painting that Homer split into several units because the larger version received tough criticism.
But despite the storied history that’s so apparent, especially when standing in the original library structure that dates to 1925, it’s the facility’s look toward the future that impresses Delgado, especially as libraries work to engage younger generations.
“Because they might sometimes look at libraries as dated from their vantage point,” Delgado said. “So how do you marry this one world that was so critical, so essential for so long, with some of the newer models? If we can marry them, we get the best of both.”
The Canajoharie library and museum has plenty of modern ideas and programming already in place. Many of these ideas come from 27-year-old librarian Maria Cancro, who has only been on the job since March, but will be promoted to Library Director come January. The library has just three full-time staff members, along with 11 who work part time, according to Cancro.
One of her biggest priorities was making the library fine-free, a policy that’s been gaining traction with libraries across the country. Canajoharie’s library went fine free at the start of this month, and Cancro, who has a master’s in library sciences from Syracuse University, said the goal is to send a welcoming message rather than one of potential shame.
“It doesn’t serve a good purpose to fine people. You’re penalizing them for being human in a sense,” she said. “The fine-free aspect is really important because it allows people to enter the library without reservations that there is going to be an issue.”
The welcoming spirit extends to all that the cultural institution offers. Yes, there are the books on the shelves and paintings in the galleries. But the library and museum also offers critical access to technology.
That includes weekly tech sessions with Cancro during which patrons can learn anything from how to set up a new phone to figuring out how to send videos to grandkids. They also have access to a computer or a fax machine, or even a laptop they can borrow like a book. The library offers innovative programs as well, such as YouTube videos coinciding with art content or developing a podcast on which kids hear favorite books read aloud and learn more about the stories and authors.
Delgado was taken with the library’s forward-thinking ideals.
“If there is that kind of revolving door of access that doesn’t come with a penalty, that’s just one more psychological barrier that you’re removing,” he said. “I think it’s about maintaining the pace of technology. As technology advances, you want to make sure that people are more connected, have more access points. And thinking outside the box, too.”
Cancro excels at innovative thinking that doesn’t push too far, Friedlander said.
“It’s a little bit like coming out of medical school. The best young doctor will have the best and newest information, and I see a lot of that and more in [Cancro],” the executive director said. “But I also see in her the ability not to steamroll the best, new, freshest idea if it’s not appropriate for us.”
That’s important in a historic village like Canajoharie, which, much like a library, needs to think about its future without losing sight of its past.
The former Beech-Nut packing plant’s possible future as the site of the E29 Labs cannabis cultivation business involves much the same dynamic.
“I like the progress that’s being made,” Delgado said of E29 Labs. “I can’t speak directly to every detail of the project and what’s coming with it, I just know that from what I’ve gathered and what contact I’ve had with folks on the ground, it’s good to see some type of development happening there. We know that for a very long time, there hasn’t been. To be able to see that there is some movement in that direction is a good thing.”
Same goes for the library, Friedlander said.
“How can you add to something, how can you improve it?” Friedlander said. “You have to build on what’s here and find your way in.”
And, even if the doors are closed because of pandemic restrictions, you can still connect to the Wi-Fi.
For more information, including information on current exhibitions at the Arkell Museum, visit canajoharielibrary.org.
Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.
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Categories: Fulton Montgomery Schoharie