Checking Out: Volunteers Help Library's Move

By ALEXIS TONTI

Libraries are by their nature organized spaces. Every book has its place: adult and children's, reference, fiction and nonfiction. They are neatly shelved, alphabetized by author or sorted by the Dewey decimal system.

That's why it's startling to walk into the seeming chaos wreaked by preparation for the Chilmark library's temporary move to the Menemsha School. Construction for the $2.1 million library renovation and expansion project is set to begin in mid-March. But before the workmen can come in, the books have to go out.

Planning and inventory began in early February, but the grunt work is happening over the next two weeks. An estimated 1,500 boxes will be used by move's end - and on Tuesday they were everywhere, stacked and in rows, labeled as to content. The sound of duct tape ripped through the air as volunteers emptied shelves and sealed cartons.

It is, however, an "organized mess," as library trustees chairman Norman Freed put it. "Hopefully we're keeping some kind of order so the librarians won't go crazy."

Order is definitely something this project requires. Thirty thousand volumes have to be sorted and packed. Order is also one of the things library director Cathy Thompson does best. "I'm an organizer," she said, on a break from packing. "I think all librarians are. The trick was to figure out how to label and identify them so - when the time comes - we can merge them at the new facility as easily as possible."

One-third of the books are being sent to the school, the other two-thirds to storage. Ms. Thompson is keeping frequent circulators available, and also current nonfiction and reference books. She said that, for example, many college advisory and travel books are specific to 2002. "If we put them away, they'd be outdated by the time we took them out again."

The Chilmark library has moved three times since it first opened in 1882. The collection began as 33 books on a shelf at the Mayhew store at Quitsa. From there it went to the Mayhew store in Menemsha, to town hall in 1903 and finally to its present location in 1956. It went through its first notable renovation in 1964, when the children's section was enlarged and a wing was added for adult fiction.

Readying the library for workmen during that expansion was a bit simpler than today. The Gazette noted that students from the Menemsha School helped the librarian "to accomplish in about a half hour what would probably have taken her a couple of days to do unassisted. It was necessary to move many, many shelves of books, a great number of which had to be carried upstairs. The children lined up, each carrying a lot of books in orderly fashion and depositing them on indicated shelves, and the whole matter was handled with dispatch, and also with a tremendous amount of goodwill all around."

This year's move calls for more than a classroom's worth of students to help - though they are part of the mix, volunteering time during school vacation week. Other volunteers hail from across the Island as well as from within the Chilmark community. "Getting support from all the libraries, from people in other towns, it's wonderful," said library aide Betty Joslow.

A few mishaps have occurred along the way. Early Sunday morning the old library furnace broke and smoke backed up into the library, covering everything in a fine layer of black, oily soot. There was no permanent damage, but packers have been wiping book spines all week.

The breakdown did, however, have an unexpected positive side effect. "Because the system gave out, we started the move earlier," Mr. Freed said. "And we got a lot more moved than we would have otherwise, because of all the trucks that were around here."

Also, the computer server crashed, leaving librarians without access to their files. But they're committed to staying open, so they have been operating much as they did in the days before automation. Ms. Joslow pulled out a yellow pad, where she's recording books that are checked out, renewed and returned. Cryptic user identification numbers and bar codes covered the page.

"Unusual times call for different measures," she said. "We just don't want people to feel neglected." Even as she spoke, a woman came into the library asking for a good mystery.

"It's been a wonderful adventure," Ms. Thompson said of the project. "We're just keeping our eyes on the goal. It's been a long time coming."

Expansion discussions actually predate Ms. Thompson's tenure as library director, which began in 1988. A space needs study done in 1985 first drew selectmen's attention to the problem. Though smaller expansions did take place about 10 years ago, the current plan addresses all the needs of the initial study.

And those needs continue to grow. From September to December of 2001, circulation was up 10 per cent from the same quarter in 2000. "It's part of a national trend that suggests usage is up," Ms. Thompson said. "Libraries are living, breathing things. People's needs constantly change, so libraries must change, too.

"They're such community centers," she added. "It's a good place to find people and feel those ties."

March 18 marks the opening of the temporary facility at the Menemsha School and also the start of construction. A groundbreaking ceremony is scheduled at the library for Wednesday, March 6, at noon. State Sen. Robert O'Leary will attend, as will the chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners, suppliers of the state grant that's helping to fund the project. Everyone is invited to share in the celebration.