Institutions host social functions and lend a variety of gear
By Sara Foss
Every Tuesday and Thursday around 11 a.m., a small group gathers for tea at the Keene Valley Library.
They sit at a long, well-worn wooden table and drink from an assortment of mugs.
On one July morning, someone brought a birthday cake and carrots with dip. An aging husky wandered and sniffed for crumbs. Karen Glass, the library’s longtime director, grabbed the kettle and poured a cup for a newcomer.
Teatime began about a decade ago, as a gathering for library staff. But it quickly evolved, and any visitors are welcomed to join the cozy meet-up in the library’s wood-paneled front room, which has the look and feel of a camp lodge.
“People who don’t have a chance to socialize or meet anybody, they can come to the library,” said Glass, a spirited and outgoing woman with a splash of purple in her hair. “People who are struggling, who have memory issues, or they’ve been in the hospital, they know they can find somebody to talk to.”
“It’s part of the job, just to be with people,” Glass said.
This combination of fun, learning and aid is typical of libraries in the 21st century, with libraries in the Adirondacks playing especially critical roles in the communities they serve. Libraries in remote and rural areas often fill gaps, offering opportunities for social connection and help accessing resources in places with few options. Perhaps most crucially, libraries have space where groups can meet, and Wi-FI is available and free.
On any given day, the Keene Valley Library hums with life, and while literacy remains central to the library’s mission, it is much more than a place that lends books. Located in the shadow of the High Peaks, the Keene Valley Library is a community hub where basic needs are met, essential services provided and entertainment and enrichment for all ages abounds.
“Things happen here,” said Marlene Swift, a native of England who visits the Adirondacks every year.
Libraries are on the front lines of a community with a good view on needs, said Erica Freudenberger, outreach and marketing consultant for the Southern Adirondack Library System (SALS).
“I don’t know how much time is spent calling social services for people or filling out a form for people,” said Linda Weal, director of the Old Forge Library, which has a food pantry in its vestibule. “For one thing, we’re trusted, and for another thing, we care.”
Glance at a library calendar, and you’ll see an eclectic mix of happenings.
At Keene Valley: mah-jongg and quilting. At Lake Pleasant: a talk on the Civilian Conservation Corps camps in the Adirondacks. At Old Forge: tending a gourmet mushroom chamber or a class on how to grow mushrooms at home. At Long Lake: telehealth equipment connecting to medical care.
“The libraries attract everyone, all different ideologies,” said Sara Dallas, executive director at SALS.
“We have people who come in here who never check out a book,” said Kristel Guimara, manager of the Long Lake Library. “They come in here because it’s a community space. They want to talk to people. They say, ‘Hey, I heard that this house sold,’ or ‘I heard about this great event—when is that going to be?’ Things like that.”
At SALS libraries, circulation per capita—the average number of loans made to each resident annually—is higher than average. In 2019, SALS libraries loaned 8.92 items per resident; statewide, libraries lent 7.74 items per resident. Those numbers dropped during the pandemic, and many librarians said they have not fully recovered.
Circulation doesn’t paint a full picture of a library’s activity. In Hamilton County, with just over 5,000 residents, the county’s five public libraries recorded over 34,000 visits, held 417 programs attended by over 6,000 and notched over 23,000 Wi-Fi sessions.
SALS statistics indicate that Adirondack libraries maintain a brisk level of activity despite lagging their peers in other regions in per capita funding. In 2021, per capita support for SALS libraries was $58.38; statewide, it was $71.03.
Despite fiscal constraints, Adirondack libraries have embarked on ambitious capital projects, expanded services and engaged in ongoing efforts to help their communities.
For the Keene and Keene Valley libraries, the summer of 2023 was a period of transition, with Keene reopening after a lengthy shutdown prompted by the poor condition of its ceiling and floors. These structural problems came to light in late 2021, and there was a brief period when some feared Keene might shut down permanently. Then Glass, the library director at Keene Valley, offered a novel solution.
“I didn’t want to see that library closed,” she recalled. “So, we decided to invite them to come into our library.”
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This article first appeared in a recent issue of Adirondack Explorer magazine.
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For 18 months, Keene and Keene Valley shared space, ideas and resources.
Glass was already well-acquainted with Aaron Miller, Keene’s library director. The two are neighbors, and their libraries are just five miles apart. Working together, they found their skills were complementary, with Glass excelling at programming and Miller particularly adept with technology. Keene had never applied for a grant before; Glass wrote the application that secured $97,000 to pay for Keene’s repairs.
“We don’t buy the same books,” Glass observed. “We don’t have the same readership. We have different books, and we have different ways we operate all over. It’s time for us to move apart, but we know that we need each other.”
The Keene and Keene Valley partnership, dubbed Project Collaboration, will continue. Among other things, the two libraries will combine their archives, with Keene Valley, which has a climate-controlled room, housing Keene’s collection. Archival materials will be digitized, making them accessible to Keene’s patrons.
In 2018, Keene Valley completed an extensive renovation of its own, refinishing its basement and adding an upstairs community room where large groups can meet and events can be held. The basement is now a makerspace, where craft supplies such as yarn are free for the taking and tools such as sewing machines can be borrowed.
The library is so busy that Glass sees a need for quiet space. She is putting in two private booths where people will be able to work, take an online class or attend an online meeting.
Most Adirondack libraries experience a summer surge in patrons, when vacationers and people with second homes arrive, and expand hours and days of operation.
In some communities, librarians are also noticing a shift in demographics. They are seeing more seasonal visitors and a boom in children. They are working to cater to this growing population while also serving their long-time, year-round clientele.
In Warrensburg, the number of vacation rentals and second homes has climbed, and the transformation is visible from The Richards Library on Elm Street. Three of the houses next to the library have become Airbnb rentals within the past five years, and more visitors from out-of-town come to the library looking to take out books or DVDs or work.
“We are trying to meet the needs of the more diverse population that we see in the summers,” said Katrena Cohea, manager of the Lake Pleasant Public Library. In previous years, “we didn’t really have a younger audience to pull from. Now we’re seeing more younger people with kids.” This influx of children prompted Cohea to launch a summer reading bingo challenge. “The kids have been really excited about it,” she said.
Shelby Burkhardt, director since 2021, moved the library’s furniture around to create work “nooks.” Library cards require proof of residency, but she’s considering creating a new category of card, for guests who don’t have a permanent address.
Some people “forgot about the library” during COVID, said Burkhardt, who grew up in Warrensburg and graduated from St. Lawrence University in 2017. “A shocking number of kids have not been in the library.” To bring this population back, she’s given tours to school groups, launched more youth programs and brought in games and puzzles “that test your mind in a different way.”
During the summer, The Richards Library began building its “library of things” that people can check out. It includes a birding backpack, with birdwatching supplies, and two outdoor learning kits that include nature journals to jot down findings, magnifying glasses and laminated guides for identifying animal tracks.
“I want to have the tools for people to come in here and be able to teach themselves, learn, grow, whatever they’re looking for,” Burkhardt said.
Small, rural libraries often provide a level of personal attention that bigger institutions are unlikely to match.
At Old Forge, staff phoned every patron in the early days of COVID-19 “to see how they were and if they needed anything,” Weal said. Staff delivered books—“mostly mysteries”—to homes.
As the pandemic wore on, the Old Forge Library found itself filling numerous gaps. The library helped people apply for vaccine appointments and distributed money from donors to residents in crisis. The vestibule was always open, and people began leaving puzzles for others to take.
By the summer of 2020, Old Forge was hosting outdoor events, inviting people to come for music and readings at a time when there were strict limits on how many people could gather at one place.
“We’d tell people, ‘Bring your lawn chair, we’re going to put distancing hoops out and we’re going to listen to Kathy read,’” Weal said. “We were providing concerts when nobody had anything. We didn’t know whether we were going to get arrested. A cop would drive by and there’d be more than 50 people and I would be like, ‘Here we go, this is going to be it.’”
“We ramped up, because nobody was doing anything,” Weal continued. “I realized the only people who know how to do anything in rural upstate New York are the libraries, the churches and the volunteer fire departments. I said: ‘We’re going to create our own model, and we’re going to get some stuff done here.’”
Local libraries have increasingly been a field of conflict in the culture wars, with conservative activists and residents pushing to remove controversial books and cancel programming some consider objectionable.
Most Adirondack librarians said they haven’t experienced these types of controversies.
“We have a challenge book policy, but we’ve never had to use it,” said Bambi Pedu, director of the Lake Placid Public Library.
One exception is the Rockwell Falls Public Library in Lake Luzerne. Staff’s decision last spring to host a drag queen story hour—an event that has sparked protests at libraries throughout the country—infuriated some community members. Ultimately, the Rockwell Falls board cut the event.
In an interview, library director Courtney Keir said staff morale suffered as a result of the discord, but that there is a bright side: In the aftermath, attendance at children’s events rose and at least 50 people signed up for library cards in a three-month span. At Rockwell Falls, with about 1,400 registered users, that’s a sizable increase.
At the Keene Valley Library, the sign at the front door states “All Are Welcome Here.” A rainbow flag waves from the patio.
“The library is a place where everybody is welcome,” Glass said. “To me, it’s sacred ground —the most democratic place you can find.”