Libraries' new role as community centers

The Underground section for teens is furnished with

The Underground section for teens is furnished with contemporary surroundings at the Middle Country Public Library in Centereach, Long Island's largest public library. (Aug. 2, 2011) (Credit: Kevin P. Coughlin)

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Kayla Stuart, 7, sat in the Nature Explorium garden classroom outside the Middle Country library in Centereach, happily drawing with chalk on the ground and on her own arms.

Rows of computers attracted more patrons than the surrounding stacks during a recent visit to the Patchogue-Medford library.

At the East Meadow library, signs for a painting class beckoned people past the books and into the building's basement.

You don't even have to whisper anymore.

No longer simply a repository for documents, today's library is consumer-driven and multifunctional.

"We are trying to create a place where people feel comfortable," East Meadow director Carol Probeyahn said. "There's home, there's work, and then we want to be the place you come to for whatever you're looking for outside of that."

The recent outcry over plans to close Mastics-Moriches-Shirley Community Library in Shirley for 16 months for building renovations highlighted the continuing importance of local libraries -- in part because libraries have been reinventing themselves.

The Hempstead library offers tax seminars for homeowners, and Bethpage is building a performance space in an outdoor garden.

Libraries spend money large and small on these new initiatives. Middle Country fundraised about $150,000 to build the Nature Explorium; East Meadow budgets about $26,000 yearly for adult class programming; and Patchogue-Medford is launching a digital reader lending program this fall with two Nooks bought for $280.

Patronage still on riseThe changes have pleased patrons. In the face of increasing options for both entertainment and information, library patronage continues to rise -- from 21.2 million visits for all Long Island libraries in 2000 to 25.6 million visits in 2009, an increase of more than 20 percent.

Patrons of the Mastics-Moriches-Shirley library who attended a raucous July meeting to discuss its closure said they were losing not just a library, but the heart of the community.

"A lot of kids are going to be on the streets," resident Susan McKeon-Steinman said. "This is a safe space here."

The desire to provide a gathering place is felt by many libraries. At Middle Country, director Sandra Feinberg said the library functions as the community's central town square. "We have no town hall," she said.

So out of necessity, the library's traditional role evolved. "As long as people are learning, I don't care how they learn," Feinberg said.

Kayla's father, Troy Stuart of Farmingville, said the Middle Country library has been a major part of Kayla's life.

"We've been coming here for seven years," he said. "It's a nice family place."

First of its kind

Built a year ago, the Nature Explorium is the first such outdoor classroom in the nation constructed at a library. Book and alphabet decorations help link the environmental lessons back to the literary motif.

Youth services are the library's backbone, Feinberg said. "When I first started working as a librarian, toys in the library were unheard of," said Feinberg, who started in the profession 40 years ago.

Adults facing career changes are another constituency. "In a changing world, to have access to a space to retrain yourself" is vital, said Kevin Verbesy, director of the Suffolk Cooperative Library System.

The Patchogue-Medford library played a crucial role in a community fractured after the death of Marcelo Lucero, an Ecuadorean immigrant beaten and stabbed to death by a group of teenagers in 2008.

Lucero had taken ESL classes at the library.

"This library won an award for the work they did in the community immediately after Lucero," with workshops and seminars on race relations, director Dina McNeece Chrils said.

The library's classes are a way to blend immigrant patrons with non-Hispanic residents, she said. While offering several courses for Spanish speakers, such as citizenship and English as a Second Language, Chrils said the library has deliberately limited the Spanish classes to avoid creating divisions.

"We encourage them to come to any programming that interests them," she said.

East Meadow offers current events discussions, concerts and classes that appeal to an older crowd that wants to have cultural options close to home.

"One person said, 'I can't ever make it into Manhattan and my husband is in a wheelchair, but we can come here -- so thank you,' " Probeyahn said.

Long Island library directors say they welcomed the opportunities of the digital age, citing downloadable media as an area with explosive growth.

"Libraries have to constantly change," Feinberg said. "You can't sit back and think, 'If you build it they will come.' "

Another area of focus is helping people learn how to use the Internet and improve their computer literacy.

Jackie Thresher, director of the educational cooperative Nassau Library System, compared the Internet to a fire hose for the volume of information it offers. "If you need to turn it down, we are here to help you."

Libraries will survive the Internet era precisely because they've diversified their offerings, Chrils said.

"When libraries first offered [video] tapes, people said Blockbuster will put them out of business," she said of the video rental chain that filed for bankruptcy last year.

"Now who is sitting here and who is going out of business?"

PROGRAMS ON LI

SAG HARBOR'S JOHN JERMAIN MEMORIAL LIBRARY Teens learn how to play the "Magic: The Gathering" card game.

HEMPSTEAD PUBLIC LIBRARY Town of Hempstead Receiver of Taxes Donald Clavin holds a community forum to discuss real estate tax.

WESTBURY LIBRARY A teacher instructs patrons in how to belly dance.

HUNTINGTON PUBLIC LIBRARY Kids participate in the Lego Club.

OYSTER BAY-EAST NORWICH PUBLIC LIBRARY Patrons learn how to scan, preserve and restore photos.

Source: Library websites

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