Old Meets New at Patterson Library

By Eli Guinnee, August 2010

Old meets new in some striking ways at Patterson Library. The mix of tradition and new technology is both wonderful and endlessly fascinating. It keeps us on our toes trying to keep up with change and supplying new demands, yet – ironically – new formats and new technologies are allowing us to rediscover the beauty and ambiance of the building as originally intended.

Our focus in 2010 is on developing many things that are distinctly modern: creating new spaces and programs for teenage users, increasing our broadband capabilities and replacing outdated computers, and using online tools to improve our book selection process for speed and greater patron input, to name a few. But the year will also see the Library remove much of its “clutter” so it can be more fully appreciated as a beautiful place in its own right.

Early this year, we will complete construction and furnishing of a new Teen Area, designed especially to give Westfield’s teenagers a welcoming, productive and useful space for reading, study and library programs. With this project completed, we will then be able to remove temporary shelving in the main floor hallway, making new space for displays of treasures from our Archives. Our DVD collection, being much more compact than the old VHS tapes, will find a new home in the hallway, opening up the rotunda so it can be enjoyed in its full glory.

The experience of entering the Library should be like taking a step back in time. Walk through the doors and you will be struck first by a magnificent view of marble columns supporting a skylight dome, surrounded by intricately carved woodwork. Look closer and you will see specimens from the Library’s natural history collection – most older than the Library itself – staring down at you from the mezzanine or scampering atop the bookshelves, two pristine golden eagles seem to guard their Library as if against change or time itself. If you turn to the right, the effect continues: you will see a large reading room decorated with portraits of the Patterson Family, and a Steinway grand piano surrounded by large reading tables and leather sofas. There is no doubt that part of the charm of Patterson Library is that it offers in places a rare opportunity to experience something unchanged for over 100 years.

But a library is not static, and incorporating useful new technologies is essential. If you turned to the left instead you will see a mirror-image of the Reading Room, with two large tables holding ten public computers. If you have come in the morning you will see adults looking for jobs, checking email, maybe catching up with friends on Facebook; or if it is the afternoon you will see several children playing games, doing homework, chatting with friends. The Reference Room is now a computer room and a computer training room. Today we can offer access to exponentially more information than even a few years ago because digital information has no space constraints and is efficient to share. Our databases represent the knowledge contained in millions of books, above and beyond the incredible amount of information available on the internet.

One of our biggest challenges these days is keeping our seventeen public computers – ten for adults, four for children, three for catalog access – working well and free of viruses. The other big challenge is keeping our own computing skills up to date so we can help patrons when they need help. In 2010 we will focus on both incorporating new computer workshops designed especially for those just starting with computers, and bringing in guest trainers to teach more advanced courses. In just a few short years, providing computers, computer training, and computer assistance have become the most essential services we offer. It is up to us to adapt our skills, time, priorities, and budgets to these new responsibilities.

As we adjust the physical arrangement of the building and update the technology we have to offer, in 2010 we will also update the programs we offer. After school activities are quickly becoming a major part of our children’s program. At the local school and at the Library itself, we now provide story times, technology training, and other activities for children of all ages. This year we are starting a new Teen Book Group to keep teens reading for fun. We notice that while our younger patrons love books and reading for the sheer joy of it, as they get older they start to associate books with homework and school assignments and forget about reading for pleasure. With a new Teen Area, Teen Book Group, and an active Teen Advisory Board we will provide the conditions necessary for young adults in the community to rediscover recreational reading, and to feel like the Library is just as much for them as it is for anyone else.

I talk about technology a lot because it is such an interesting and ever-changing challenge. But, to be sure, it represents not a replacement of traditional library services, but an addition. Westfield is full of readers. Adults and children alike visit Patterson Library in large numbers simply to check out a book. Few delights are so pure and uncomplicated as choosing a book or two, or a few, from a selection of tens of thousands with money as no object. That unique pleasure has not diminished and it never will. From a young age, children learn the wonders of reading through our weekly story times, after school programs, and busy Summer Reading Program. Our commitment to early literacy will remain at the core of what we do in 2010 and beyond. Our adult programs continue to be popular, especially our discussion groups.

A unique and much-loved feature of Patterson Library is the Octagon Art Gallery. In 2010 we will have several excellent new exhibitions. We are proud of our tradition of supporting local artists and giving the community a chance to view exciting new works of art. This year historian and graphic artist James O’Brien will be teaching a graphic arts workshop for local teens. It is important, especially for our young patrons, that art is not only something to be viewed passively, but to be actively engaged with.

We are a busy place, and we love being a busy place. Public libraries exist for three reasons that unite to create something even greater than their parts: efficiency, enrichment, and equality. Any one of these would be enough to justify a library’s existence, but together they create something really unique and important to our quality of life. An efficient use of a small amount of community funds invested in enriching programs and materials returns a huge value to that community. Libraries are cheap. They improve lives. And they give support and hope to everyone, rich or poor, free of charge. It is no coincidence that so many rags-to-riches stories begin with a library: for those children who grow up with very little, a public library is the first taste of opportunity, a way to find happiness, feel optimism and plan a brighter future. The future is bright for Patterson Library and 2010 looks to be an especially exciting year.

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