Library Use is on the Rise Across the East End

Librarian Nancy Myers, at center, helps Debora Champa and Patti Kivestu find a book at the John Jermain Memorial Library earlier this month. Michael Heller photo

At Sag Harbor’s John Jermain Memorial Library, nearly everything is trending upward, according to library director Catherine Creedon — digital downloads, program attendance across all age groups and even print book circulation.

At the East Hampton Library, 2019 is the first year in the facility’s history, according to director Dennis Fabiszak, that it’s spending more on digital materials than print materials for the library — and yet people’s average length-of-stay there is soaring higher and higher.

At the Hampton Library in Bridgehampton, director Kelly Harris reports the space is teeming with teens after school and on the weekends, and over at Rogers Memorial Library in Southampton, program attendance is smashing records, according to director Elizabeth Burns. And at the Montauk Library, voters in the community just approved a major, $7.5-million expansion and renovation of the nearly 20-year-old building, which has also been seeing circulation and attendance trending upward.

It’s all evidence that on the South Fork, libraries are solidifying their roles as what’s known as a “third place” in their patrons’ lives. The term comes from a report from The Brookings Institute, which said in March 2017 that public libraries build strong communities by providing “informal spaces that are often mainstays in the neighborhood, places where both random and intentional in-person relationships are made.” They are neither a patron’s home, the “first place,” nor the place of employment, the “second place,” but rather a unique kind of alternative.

“They say you can’t judge a book by its cover,” The Brookings Institute wrote. “Increasingly in the United States, you also can’t judge a library’s value to its community by simply its books.”

Ms. Creedon sees it in the rising number of reference questions that Sag Harbor patrons are asking JJML librarians, which rose 17 percent year-over-year in April, up to more than 1,500 questions in a month. She sees it in the number of visitors to the library. Visitor traffic to JJML rose 8 percent year-over-year in April, up to 6,788 for the month. The same year-over-year period shows adults attended programs at a clip of almost 77 percent more, and attendance for children’s programs more than doubled, up to 287 in April. And Ms. Creedon sees it in the fact that people are cramming themselves into every little corner they can find in the recently renovated library, which reopened in 2015.

“We have younger teens using the space downstairs as a hangout environment,” she said. “There will be snacks there after school, they’ll talk to the staff. If after school you go upstairs to the rotunda [room] there will be older teens studying side-by-side with an author who is writing their novel. It’s amazing.”

Wonda Miller, JJML’s program director, offered another take. She cited a dramatic increase in downloadable items among the library’s circulation in April, a year-over-year increase of 50 percent, up to 2,044 items. She also cited the library’s mobile Wi-Fi hotspot devices, which can be borrowed for up to two weeks to provide internet service at home or at other locations, as an example of why she feels “the library really transcends the walls.”

“We’re trying to meet people where they are instead of just in the building, and a lot of that is through our downloadable services and streaming services,” Ms. Miller said. “We try to get out to some of the spots in the community. We just did a visit at the food pantry.”

The trend that JJML is seeing looks a bit different in other local libraries.

“It’s interesting to me, circulation wise, nationally, statewide, locally and hyper-locally here in Bridgehampton, you see a downward trend of circulation of physical materials — traditional library items. Books, audio books, DVDs,” Ms. Harris said. “We sort of changed our model of book purchasing. We are seeing a small increase of books at the moment but where we are seeing a dramatic drop is our DVD collection because of streaming materials. Everyone has those services. By the time we’re able to get “A Handmaid’s Tale” on DVD, people are able to get on Hulu and watch it that way. It’s just one of those situations where the medium by which people are getting their information has changed.”

But, Ms. Harris said, that gives libraries an opportunity to redefine themselves. The Hampton Library is not just lending books — it’s also lending board games, beach chairs, sewing machines, cake pans and other items you’d associate more with department stores than with libraries. And then there’s the matter of space.

“People are looking for places to sit and work. Collaborative spaces where they can work, or places to meet up with friends so children can play at our sensory table,” she said. “The ‘third place’ — you’ve heard that term? They’re really looking to use the library as their third place.”

People aren’t dashing in for 10 minutes to grab a book or DVD anymore. They’re staying much longer. “They’re here for a quiet place to sit and read or work on the next great American novel,” Ms. Harris said. “And we can say it was written here.”

On the horizon at the Hampton Library is a retooling of space to create a young adult area as well as find other creative ways to add space within the building’s current footprint, Ms. Harris said. Its most recent renovation was completed just 10 years ago.

“We don’t really have enough space for the number of groups who want to meet here,” she said. “Everything that sort of met our needs or exceeded our needs 10 years ago is completely different. It’s not the result of the board at that time not having the vision to build us a space that we can use. It’s just that libraries change.”

Size matters, too, at the Amagansett Library. But in a different way.

Director Lauren Nichols, who has been there just a couple of months, said, “Being one of the smallest libraries on Long Island provides us with the unique opportunity to create a quiet, intimate space where people come to escape from the din of daily life.”

Perhaps what differentiates Amagansett from other local libraries is an emphasis is less on technology and more on interpersonal connection.

“Folks seem to relish activities that allow them to connect with their neighbors,” Ms. Nichols said. “Parents and caretakers also seem to seek out the Amagansett Library as a place for children to learn and create without using computers. I suspect this is not a trend experienced nationally.”

The Rogers Memorial Library has also added features one may not normally associate with libraries. Patrons can actually renew passports and have documents notarized at Rogers Memorial Library. They can borrow volleyball and bocce ball sets. They can “check out” seeds for their gardens, though the expectation is those don’t have to be returned.

Whereas downloadable materials at Rogers Memorial Library have seen a 20-percent increase from 2017 to 2018, the most recent year for which data was available, print material circulation has declined by 7 percent and hard copies of audio and video materials has declined by 14 percent, Ms. Burns said. What she also finds interesting, she said, is that desktop computer usage has declined by 15 percent — but Wi-Fi usage has increased 5 percent.

“Most people are bringing in their own laptops, smartphones and iPads, not necessarily needing our computers,” Ms. Burns said. “They need our Wi-Fi and printers.”

Rogers Memorial Library held 1,672 adult programs in 2018, up 30 percent from 2017, and saw 17,185 people attend those programs.

“Since this building was built about 18 or 19 years ago, we’ve always offered high-quality, cultural adult programming as well as computer courses,” Ms. Burns said. “That was kind of something they said we’re going to invest resources in. That has stuck. Today we’re still offering those programs that we started with, but we’re expanding them.”

A light-bulb recently went off in her head, she said, as she reflected on how things have changed at Rogers Memorial Library in recent years.

“The library is not quite the ‘shush-shush’ place anymore,” Ms. Burns said, “so now we have to create quiet space.”

Library services in Montauk have been so heavily used, in increasingly growing numbers, that director Denise DiPaolo said it became clear there was a need for expansion.

“There’s no sign of it slowing down,” she said in an interview the day before Montauk voters approved a bond for up to $7.5 million to renovate and expand the library. “It’s time to reconfigure and rehabilitate what we have, and expand to meet the needs of our community.”

Between 2013 and 2018, Ms. DiPaolo said, library visits increased by 21 percent, up to 49,710 per year. Circulation increased by 22 percent and downloadable content increased 202 percent. Event attendance also soared: adult programs saw a 39-percent increase in attendance, while children’s programs saw a whopping 346-percent increase.

When one looks at those kinds of numbers, it’s easy to see why the community voted 245 to 81 -— that’s about a 75-percent approval rating — for what will be a 5,000-square-foot expansion to the existing 9,000-square-foot building.

“In a hometown library, when you truly are the heart of the community, the statistics are through the roof,” Ms. DiPaolo said. “We mean so much to our community. We provide a healthy social infrastructure as a whole and it’s so important that we’re thriving, innovative and forward-thinking.”

One of the library’s planned new features is a large archival and local history room. That’s one thing that Ms. DiPaolo said is a niche at the Montauk Library.

“Montauk people are so proud of their history. We are the place where people bring their archives — photographs, documents, maps,” she said. “That’s one of the reasons we are expanding. Our archives are bursting at the seams. Everyone has just so much to share. We’re really happy to be the place where people drop off their items and know they’re safe and secure and will be meaningful forever.”

At the East Hampton Library — a trend mirrored in other local libraries, too — Mr. Fabiszak said his staff has invested a lot of time and energy into one-on-one training for patrons who need help figuring out their devices. And while downloads from its digital collection have soared — an increase of 48 percent year-over-year in April — he doesn’t attribute that growth to the one-on-one training. It’s just how people are consuming their information these days, he said.

Program attendance is growing, too. By the end of April, that figure was up by 36 percent year-over-year. And the children’s wing — which Mr. Fabizsak called a “destination” on parents’ “short list” of things to do with their kids locally — has had a huge impact since it opened in 2014. That year, program attendance totaled about 9,800. In 2018, it had grown to about 20,300. People attend town- and village- co-sponsored events, or kids’ games of “man hunt,” or visit the haunted library at Halloween.

You can also find something at the East Hampton Library that you can’t find at the others — a cup of Starbucks coffee in the lobby. It’s $1 if you bring your own mug. Coffee now accounts for more revenue than fines in the library’s bottom line, Mr. Fabiszak said.

“We use the term ‘community center,’ but it’s different than that,” he said. “They’re embracing it for an office, or a place to write or meet with a friend, or a place to come and be tutored.”

There’s even a “mystique” among local authors that if you’re writing at the East Hampton Library, your book is going to be successful, Mr. Fabiszak said.

“We’ve become all these other things instead of just a place that warehouses books and DVDs to take out,” he said. “When I started 12-and-a-half years ago, we weren’t yet bought into the idea of being a community center and our program restrictions were that if we did a program, it had to involve a book. Obviously, that’s not the only kind of programming people want, or our numbers wouldn’t have jumped the way they are now, so it’s really changed.”

At JJML, Ms. Creedon said she feels lucky to work in such an innovative and meaningful place.

“It’s that third place,” she said. “This is a safe place in a world where there’s so much at stake in so many different areas. The library remains a source of information on a variety of viewpoints and provides a really safe place to access and understand those viewpoints. We do it equally through our programming and through our collections. It’s a beautiful thing.”