Libraries still in the business of books, but embrace growing role as community ‘third space’

Amaris Montoya of Talewise blows soap bubbles full of sublimating dry ice over volunteers during a Science Heroes program at the Athol Public Library earlier this month.

Amaris Montoya of Talewise blows soap bubbles full of sublimating dry ice over volunteers during a Science Heroes program at the Athol Public Library earlier this month. STAFF FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Iris Fisher, 8, and her sister Ivie Fisher, 5, of Petersham, take turns holding an African giant millipede after a presentation by Bryan Man, also known as Professor Bugman, at the Athol Public Library in February.

Iris Fisher, 8, and her sister Ivie Fisher, 5, of Petersham, take turns holding an African giant millipede after a presentation by Bryan Man, also known as Professor Bugman, at the Athol Public Library in February. STAFF FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Tilton Library on North Main Street in South Deerfield.

Tilton Library on North Main Street in South Deerfield. STAFF FILE PHOTO/CHRIS LARABEE

Tilton Library Director Candace Bradbury-Carlin stands in the South Deerfield Congregational Church’s function hall, which will serve as the library’s temporary home while its expansion project is underway.

Tilton Library Director Candace Bradbury-Carlin stands in the South Deerfield Congregational Church’s function hall, which will serve as the library’s temporary home while its expansion project is underway. STAFF FILE PHOTO/CHRIS LARABEE

By MAX BOWEN

Athol Daily News Editor

Published: 03-31-2024 11:36 AM

Tilton Library Director Candace Bradbury-Carlin said that in recent years, libraries have grown beyond a place to study or get books and into a “third space,” serving their patrons in new and diverse ways.

At the South Deerfield library, this could mean providing craft kits for children to take home and work on at their own pace. At the Athol Public Library, this “third space” is expressed through a new program aimed at providing seniors the skills to proficiently operate tablets and smartphones.

Libraries around western Massachusetts are facilitating this “third space” community-centered environment by doing things like creating comfortable hang-out spaces for teens, installing outdoor wildflower walkways, and offering more varied programming and events.

“The ‘third place’ refers to home, school and work, and the third place where you feel like you belong,” said Bradbury-Carlin. “It can be a coffee shop, a place to play sports or a library. People know you, you belong, you can be yourself there.”

Growing beyond the books

In February, the Athol Public Library launched the Embrace Technology Project, funded by a $69,781 grant by the American Rescue Plan Act through the Massachusetts Executive Office of Elder Affairs. The program provides classes, one-on-one tutoring and devices that class participants can keep upon completion. Library Director Jean Shaughnessy said technology-based services have been among the most popular.

“The grant with the Senior Center is coming at a perfect time,” she said. “We’re helping folks of all ages with their devices, providing devices and internet for folks who don’t have that at home.”

Along with technology, the Athol Public Library has led field trips to Harvard Forest and Swift River Valley Historical Society through a Mass Humanities grant and worked with the Millers River Environmental Center on gardening and bird-watching programs. Shaughnessy said these are “worth growing” and the library has applied for additional funding.

“Programming seems to be the thing that people really want,” she said. “The more you have, the more people ask for it and volunteer.”

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From community spaces to cafes, libraries are changing, not just in their forms, but in what happens within. The Athol Public Library has partnered with Valuing Our Children to start Alphabet & Allies, a new club for LGBTQ tweens and allies. This group meets at the same time and location as Parenting with Pride, a group to provide support to anyone parenting LGBTQ kids.

Shaughnessy said people have even contacted the library to suggest new programs or classes, such as Dr. Cynthia Crosson of Petersham, who organized a four-week series on handwriting analysis. Another person has expressed interest in starting a knitting club.

“People reach out to us, which is fabulous,” Shaughnessy said. “So far we’ve done well accommodating others.”

Greenfield Library Director Anna Bognolo said that since the new library opened last summer there has been a large increase in the “mixed-use” offerings, including study groups of Greenfield Community College and high school students, gaming sessions, and meeting rooms used by different community organizations.

On average, the Greenfield Library sees 600 people, said Bognolo, which has created the opportunity for new collaborations, such as a bridge or mahjong group or tech support program.

“We really see there are many ways that we go beyond having books on the shelves,” Bognolo said.

The Tilton Library is in the process of moving to the South Deerfield Congregational Church’s function hall, as its long-awaited expansion project is nearly set to begin.

While the staff is preparing for the move, passive programs are in place, such as the take-home crafting kits or drop-in activities that children can do anytime during the library’s normal hours.

But Bradbury-Carlin said there have been numerous programs in the past that have proven successful, including Tilton’s Library of Things, a collection of items for loan, including a ukulele, mandolin, sewing machine, astronomy backpack kit or a hiking pole.

“It’s quite a long list,” she said. “We’re actually running out of space.”

Over at Jones Library in Amherst, programming brings people together, including a weekly gaming and knitting group, among others.

“There’s the traditional role of the library as a place where people can borrow books — and now that’s expanded to other media like audiobooks and movies,” said Janet Ryan, head of programming and outreach at Jones Library. “But over the years, it’s come to be more of a really important ‘third space’ — not home and not work, where people can gather and hang out, read a magazine, meet a friend.”

Books a constant as library’s role expands

Public libraries have always served to facilitate the spread of knowledge and learning within their communities. And the most basic and fundamental function of any library has always been to lend books — the very word “library” stems from the Latin “liber” meaning “book.”

Around the area, circulation — or the number of physical books checked out — remains level or slightly down since the pandemic. Meanwhile, circulation of non-streaming content including e-books and audiobooks grows each year.

Bradbury-Carlin said that when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, many library patrons shifted to reading e-books, which helped some to develop the skills needed to navigate digital services such as Libby, Hoopla and Kanopy, which provide books, music and movies at no charge.

“We feel like it’s a balance,” Bradbury-Carlin said. “Some people like to do things online, or print, or both. It hasn’t taken away from the physical, just provided a nice balance for people.”

Bognolo said that printed books still have a strong audience in Greenfield, as well as surrounding communities, since the library is part of the Central and Western Massachusetts Automated Resource Sharing, a consortium made up of over 100 member libraries primarily located in central and western Massachusetts. E-books are also popular, partly due to the options they offer for increasing font size or looking up certain words to learn their meanings.

“I would say there’s an equal desire to have e-content and printed,” said Bognolo. “Our printed materials are circulating at a high level, people are borrowing them.”

Shaughnessy said books still have a role, as some prefer the physical medium, even the teens, who she said enjoy manga and graphic novels. The Athol Public Library also offers digital services and Shaughnessy said they aren’t buying quite as many paper books as they used to.

“Athol is lucky, the town manager has been able to support what we’ve asked for,” she said. “We need to search for more grants to pay for these and we’ve gotten them.”

Max Bowen can be reached at mbowen@recorder.com or 413-930-4074. Freelance reporter Maddie Fabian contributed to this article.