Our local libraries bring us together
Where I grew up, in a well-populated town just beyond the Blue Line, our public library was a towering, columned institution where you tiptoed and whispered. So in all my years of living in the Adirondacks and frequenting our teeny hamlet libraries, their lack of, well, quiet, still feels a little naughty, like spitting watermelon seeds or clapping between the movements of a symphony. But it’s just this laid-back atmosphere, as well as the books that line the walls, that makes me love and appreciate these local hangouts.
Upper Jay’s Wells Memorial Library hosts art exhibitions, concerts, craft workshops, theater rehearsals, baby showers and birthday parties. Old Forge Library has a dizzying schedule of authors’ events, quilting clubs, story strolls, babysitting clinics, writing seminars, seniors’ bingo, open mic nights and readers’ theater. In Keene Valley kids gather at the library for Minecraft and chess tournaments, Lego-building, movie nights, sleepovers and storytelling. Adults come for readings and lectures and, a couple of years back, even a wedding.
Unlike most calendars of events in the Adirondacks, the ones for these places—and libraries across the park—are packed year-round, even ramping up in the deepest, darkest of winter. Our libraries offer tangible things like books, of course, but also the face-to-face interaction that rural communities and a world connected by the abbreviated communication on little screens sometimes lacks.
At 11 each morning in the Keene Valley Library, director Karen Glass, her staff and anyone else who wants to join in, drop everything for a cup of tea and conversation. Glass describes the library as a place that goes beyond serving as a resource, fulfilling the role of community center. She says, “There’s no requirement to belong here, everyone’s welcome. A library is the ultimate expression of democracy.”
Keene Valley Library is in the final stretch of a million-dollar capital campaign for infrastructure upgrades to the 132-year-old building, but also to add a Community Media & Education Center, an expanded kids’ space, and a Craft Center & Makerspace with a 3-D printer. “My fantasy,” says Glass, “is to walk down the street and, when people say, ‘Where can I build this or make a quilt or record a song?’ tell them, ‘At the library.’”
Old Forge Library’s director, Izzie Worthen, describes her library, where she’s been at the helm for 41 years, as “a community facility. Kids, dogs—it’s a happening place, but that’s what we want libraries to be.”
That’s nothing new. “All these little libraries were founded by people who wanted a place where they could go to get books and see friends,” says Worthen. “It was important for people to have them in their lives. That’s why it’s important for them to continue to be strong. Libraries adapt and serve their people in that way.”
Adirondackers might need them now more than ever before. Most social hubs like general stores have shuttered. Many post offices have closed or offer choppy, unpredictable hours. But libraries endure. And the faces behind the front desk—or floating around, greeting everyone who comes through the door, helping folks find books or log on to computers or determine the next chess move or simply listening—become an invaluable part of our lives.
Through the years I’ve witnessed Upper Jay librarian Karen Rappaport chat with people about books, but also health ailments, pets, weather, grandkids, neighbors and the height of the Ausable River that practically flows in the library’s backyard. Recently, when I brought my stack of books to Rappaport for checkout, we joked that because of her kind, patient “sessions” with library-goers, a better title for her might be “bookologist.” She laughed and then, as she made her way through my pile, I proceeded to tell her all of my problems.