Paul Karasik walked into the West Tisbury Free Public Library late last Saturday afternoon looking for a gong. At the same time library director Beth Kramer was busy helping someone fill out a passport application. Lisa Nivala and her daughter Karinne were looking for their favorite book in the children’s section. And Insley Julier was taking her time in the Vineyard Collection area of the library, acquainting herself with the nuances of the Island.
But even with Mr. Karasik’s quest for a gong for that evenings’s Martha’s Vineyard Charter School annual rock auction, it felt like a normal fall day at the library, save for the cardboard boxes lining the aisles of books and the staff quietly packing away the last of the library’s collection. The current iteration of the West Tisbury library closed its doors on Saturday to make way for a new and larger facility, set to open in 2014. Ground-breaking is expected next month for the new building and the library will be temporarily housed at the Middletown Village on State Road in North Tisbury, across the street from Conroy’s Apothecary. The CLAMS network, the Cape and Islands borrowing network, will be up and running in about a month.
As the clock approached 5 p.m., the final hour of the library was quiet and business continued as usual. Many of the books had already been taken off the shelves and either delivered to the temporary location, stored away or sent off to patrons’ homes for safekeeping and lending. Knitting expert Kathy Minkiewicz is the keeper of the knitting books and town poet laureate Justen Ahren will be overseeing the poetry books. Most of the magazines had been given away, but a year’s worth of Men’s Health magazines still lingered on the stacks.
While filling boxes with books, Ms. Kramer reflected on the memories made in the old space and the difficulty of the coming transition.
“It’s hard going into something that’s so uniquely small,” she said of the temporary space. “It will not be a browsing library.”
Flexibility and resilience were the buzzwords to describe the coming days, weeks and months of the library’s future, “but we’re transforming into something wonderful.”
The support from the community has been overwhelming, Ms. Kramer added. “Everyone has been helping.” As if to underscore this point the last patrons of the day offered to help carry boxes outside.
This is, of course, not the first change to affect the West Tisbury library and community support has been a defining characteristic of the library since its inception. The second oldest library on the Vineyard, the West Tisbury Free Public Library was founded in 1891 by Nathaniel Southgate Shaler of Harvard University, also the founder of Seven Gates Farm, West Tisbury Congregational Church pastor William Rotch, Judge Everett Allen Davis and wife Georgianna Davis, Capt. Cyrus Manter and William B. Mayhew.
But it wasn’t until 1893 when the founders purchased the Moses C. Mitchell Family School for Boys located on Music street did the library finally have a place to call home. The small mansard roof building served as the town’s library until 1992 when it relocated to its current location. The reading room was added in 1995.
West Tisbury resident Allen Whiting has warm memories of the town library in both locations.
“The librarians over my lifetime have become heroes to the community,” he said.
Mr. Whiting was often “looking off into the sunset” rather than checking out books at the library, but he noted how the town has always yearned for knowledge.
“I think it’s become a civic center at this point,” he said. “We live in an educated community, hungry for information... there’s no line outside of my gallery but there can be one outside the library.”
Mr. Whiting has strong familial ties to the library. His stepmother, Nancy Whiting, was the librarian at the Music street location from 1970 to 1982. Mr. Whiting’s wife Lynn recalled how the library was an introduction to Island life when she first moved to West Tisbury from her home state of Utah.
“When I had our daughter [Beatrice], that was our first social center,” she said. “I used to go to the library and leave Bea in the bouncy seat in front of Nancy’s desk and feel comfortable and safe.”
Mrs. Whiting’s daughter would eventually become a library intern under Anne Fielder. Each day after working at the library Bea would return home and try to organize the Whiting household under the Dewey Decimal system.
“Kids that grow up in that kind of environment, whether it’s large or small, have an exciting outlook on life,” Lyn Whiting said.
From 1895 to 1949 the second floor of the library housed the Martha’s Vineyard Historical Society. Eventually this was converted to a children’s room.
“The children’s library was terrific because you could go out on a tiny deck and see the world around you on the second floor,” said Ann Fielder, the children’s librarian during the 1980’s. “I loved going there and it just seemed to me it was a refuge.
“When I was the children’s librarian, the only thing I ever had to do was make sure the grown-ups weren’t up there chatting with each other while one child was reading to a table full of other smaller children,” she added. “I may have come down heavy at times,” she admitted.
But not all memories were quite as positive. Mrs. Fielder’s sister, author and longtime West Tisbury resident Cynthia Riggs, remembered one librarian, Helena McNeill, who worked at the Music street library from the 1930s through the 1950s.
“[She] turned me off libraries for a long time,” Ms. Riggs said.
“Mrs. McNeill was a very stern librarian who felt books belonged in the library and shouldn’t be taken out and she felt that children had no business reading books that were inappropriate and made sure they wouldn’t get them,” Ms. Riggs recalled. “She was so scary I stayed away from libraries until I was in college.”
“But I always loved that little building — there were two great clam shells [sculptures] out front, the kind you’re scared of stepping on because they’ll hold you under water.”
Ms. Riggs said she is looking forward to the new library and is eager to see its evolving role on the Vineyard.
“It’s one of the most important things in the community,” she said. “Our library is wonderful, especially in the way it’s adapting to the digital age because the library is going to be every bit as important with electronics as it has been in the past.”
“I am 100 per cent in favor of libraries,” Ms. Riggs continued. “Mrs. McNeill was simply a blip.”
These days, it’s nothing but praise for the library staff and welcoming atmosphere at the library.
“It is such a supportive place... I go in there and there’s a real interest in you as a person,” West Tisbury poet laureate Justen Ahren said. “They have a knack for knowing everyone there.”
Mr. Ahren frequently uses the library to write his poetry; staff often suggest new titles for browsing and make space available for poetry readings.
“It’s amazing to have support under what you do and have it be considered a valuable thing,” he said. “The library has done that for me and I’d venture to say it does that for a lot of people of all different walks of life — carpenter, gardener or bird watcher — they support that and validate your interests.”