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Column: Public Libraries — A Precious Asset

If you thought that the internet has made libraries obsolete, you’d be wrong. In fact, libraries now provide more community and individual services than ever before. And where else can you can stay all day and not even have to buy a cup of coffee? 

This article is going to talk about public libraries in general and the Shelter Island Library in particular and a plea to vote for its proposed expansion, scheduled for June 17, 2023.

But first, a little history. Historians credit Benjamin Franklin with starting the first lending library in the U.S. when he donated a collection of books in 1790 to a town that later became known as Franklin, Massachusetts. But Samuel Swett Green (1837-1918), who founded the American Library Association in 1876, is credited as the founding figure in America’s public library movement.

Later, Andrew Carnegie, once the wealthiest man in America, gave away his fortune with a considerable sum going to the formation of 1,689 public libraries. According to a National Public Radio report from 2013, in 1903 the public library in Washington, D.C. was the only place downtown where African Americans could use the bathroom.

The spirit then and now continues to be one of inclusion.

Eric Klinenberg, a sociologist who has written extensively about libraries, stated in a 2018 New York Times opinion piece, “I recently spent a year doing ethnographic research in libraries in New York City. Again and again, I was reminded how essential libraries are not only for a neighborhood’s vitality, but also for helping to address all manner of personal problems.” 

For older people and those living alone, the library provides places of culture and company with book clubs and classes. For children and teens, programming is extensive and free, unlike expensive after-school programs. 

Basically, libraries are community centers for everyone throughout the social and economic spectrum. People who lack computers at home can use one at the library.  People who lack literacy skills can learn English that will help them get better jobs.

In certain cities, libraries provide social workers and programs for homeless people who may not know how to find these resources on their own.

Which leads us to the small-town library on Shelter Island.

In my 30 years as a second-home owner here, I had visited the library on very few occasions. Then came the pandemic, and like many weekenders, I was here full time. It didn’t take long to figure out what so many Islanders already knew — that our little gem of a library was more like the jewel in Shelter Island’s crown.

Along with a collection of books, film, and online resources commensurate with a much larger community, I was astounded to learn about all the programming. Librarian Terry Lukas and her amazing staff immediately transitioned to webinars to assist a pandemic-addled island. 

Terry, who herself transitioned from lawyer to librarian, exudes a love of reading that is infectious. One of the many notes of thanks she received during the pandemic simply said: “We love your email updates. This is hard these days and your emails are a boost.”  Another note said: “I have lived in other places and I must say, the Shelter Island Library has the most concerned people ever!”

Staff member Kimberly Atkins recently spoke to a regular patron who expressed gratitude for all the programs, particularly the Cookbook Club, which was a pandemic favorite.

If you, your children, or grandchildren have not met Head of Youth Services Sara Garcia, now is the time. Not only has Sara curated books for all ages and reading levels, her story-time readings to kids are widely loved.

And although not formally trained as a mental health counselor, she’s able to reach kids experiencing all kinds of moods. In Sara’s words, “I know the kids really well at this point, so I can tell when they are a little ‘off.’ I make it a point to chat with them and see if there is anything I can do to make their day better, or just be an active listener for them.” 

Post-pandemic, many programs are now being held in person as well as online. In the warm weather, the tent provides a great space and atmosphere for lectures and conversations. But the downstairs meeting space only accommodates a limited number of guests, and can become quite cramped for popular programs and community meetings.

Similarly, the children’s area downstairs has books and resources for all kids in one space. Little kids, school age children, tweens, and adolescents all deserve their own sections. And as more books are purchased every year, more space is needed for them.

On Saturday, May 20, 2023, the library is sponsoring an open house for the community to view the expansion plans and ask questions. If you wish to view the plans online, they are on the library’s website prior to the June 17th vote —  shelterislandpubliclibrary.org

You must be registered to vote on Shelter Island to vote for the library expansion. If you need an absentee ballot, you can pick up an application at the library or school, and then mail the application to Jacqueline Dunning, District Clerk, Shelter Island Union Free School, P.O. Box 2105, Shelter Island, NY 11964. The actual ballot must be returned to Ms. Dunning by June 9, 2023.

Basically, this small-town library has become too successful for its space. It’s time for it to become what most of us believe it is — a major institution to make our community proud.