story and photos by Derek Doeffinger
Not wineries. Not waterfalls. Not women of fame. And, oh, not those lovely lakes. These may be the attractions that draw tourists from near and far, and the attractions we love to show off to our out-of-town guests, but these are not the places that feed our minds, bring us together, or help us make sense of our world.
The places that can do that are quiet and unassuming, but always ready to assist without fuss or fanfare. They are our small-town libraries.
At first glance, they may seem like the wallflowers of local attractions. Too quiet. Too unassuming. Too plain. Too boring.
But it is in the small libraries of the hamlets, villages, and rural roads of the Finger Lakes heartland that you’ll discover the spirit of the Finger Lakes.
Those of you who haven’t visited a library in a while may still cling to that Hollywood stereotype. You know, the quiet dim place crammed with shelves of musty books under the guard of a woman with a stern, grim visage and a clotted, tuberous bun bulging from the back of her head as she stealthily patrols the aisles, armed and ready with the quickest shushing index finger in the county.
But the reality is just the opposite. Whatever their size, most libraries are bright and modern inside. Even the tiny ones. Although quiet may be the trademark of libraries, they can be fun, lively, and entertaining. Even noisy. Especially when a herd of chattering toddlers charges through for story time.
Above all, the librarians and their staff are unflaggingly welcoming and helpful. And they know their stuff. In many libraries sits a librarian with a master’s in library science who not only knows books, but is also grounded in technology, business, and the needs of the community.
By my arbitrary tally, I count up about 59 libraries.
I love the small, remote libraries. The ones barely bigger than a barbershop. Like many of us, the small-town libraries survive through resourcefulness and a can-do attitude.
Many sit in the middle of nowhere, which means they often help those who need it most. Allen Hill Public Library resides a few miles north of Honeoye Lake in what looks like a small ranch house on a barren hillside across from a field of soybeans. Hazard Library (about 15,000 items checked out annually) is even smaller. It stands next to the post office and across the street from Dave Bell Auto Services on Rt. 34B, located halfway between the hamlets of Here and There (actually between Ledyard and Scipioville).
The E.B. Pert library in Hector exemplifies how small libraries survive. In one word: gumption. The Pert is the only totally volunteer-run library in the state.
One of its 20 volunteers, Liz Martin, co-owner of Muddy Fingers Farm (and town board member) says, “Our volunteers manage to cover the many roles and tasks of a library. It’s amazing how everybody comes together to keep it going.”
It used to be inside the volunteer fire department building; a bit awkward, especially since no amount of shushing could silence the sirens. Now it’s next door and brand new: a large, single room with sparkling pine floors, walls, and bookshelves – all built by volunteers.
To keep going, some small libraries work side jobs. The tiny Atlanta library (“on Main Street since 1921”) doubles as a post office and offers library deliveries to home-bound patrons. The Montour Falls Public Library doubles as a welcome center, with Director Roxanne Leyes and Assistant Director Kelly Povero greeting tourists one minute and assisting library patrons the next. The Hazard library rents out the adjoining post office. The Gorham library shares its space with the historical society, as does the Waterloo library. The Middlesex Reading Center (also in the running for smallest) sits under the town hall.
Soaring into the Internet and Beyond
Only a few years ago, many people thought that the arrival of the internet and its armies of free content and information would squash libraries. That electronic devices would make them obsolete. That they’d become extinct. But a funny thing happened on the way to extinction by internet. That initial trickle of devices and information burst into a confusing flood of smartphones, tablets, Kindles, apps, settings, airplane modes, connections, ISPs, phishing and new social norms that threatened to drown anybody over 30 in their complexity (and costs).
Libraries came to the rescue. They not only embraced technology, they ran with it. In football vernacular, they scooped up a loose ball and dashed with it to the end zone. Now they’re our coaches, providing classes and resources to the new information world; now parents can learn almost enough technobabble to figure out what their kids are up to. And now just about anybody can use the library to access the wide world of internet information and entertainment media in all its forms.
Although usage of traditional hardcover books has slipped, they’re still in demand. So you can still drift to sleep with the latest mystery, travel, or home improvement book perched on your chest.
But digital content abounds and is readily available. Prefer an eBook? It’s only a click away. Same for audiobooks. Same for an assortment of movies available as DVDs or downloads. You can obtain free music downloads through Freegal, or discover distant ancestors through genealogical sites. Need information for health or financial issues? Need help with your iPad, Kindle, smartphone, setting up an eBay store, navigating Facebook or Craigslist, Twitter or Instagram? Just ask. Lack wireless at home? Check out a free wi-fi hot spot. Want to try 3-D printing or a makerspace with a cutting laser? A few libraries can set you up for that. Lack a home printer? Many libraries enable you to print on the library’s printer from your home computer or even remotely from your smartphone. And nearly all offer computers for on-site use.
Libraries provide on-site entertainment and education. Just take a look at the calendar for the Livonia library: family movie nights, a chopstick challenge, coding and robotics, juggling acts, storytimes for kids of all ages. Plus activity and education groups for knitting, painting, cooking, computing, texting, Facebooking. But no library can top the offerings of the Tompkins County Library in Ithaca. Go to tcpl.org and click on the calendar if you want to be dazzled.
A Community Resource
Out in the hinterland and in small towns, libraries serve as community centers. Through activity gatherings, classes, and seminars, they enable the community to come together and socialize in small or large groups.
Ruth Freier, director of the Gorham Library says, “We try to provide the things that our community wants. I feel we should try to preserve the culture and make sure to carry forward the story of the community.”
Surrounded by Mennonite farms and businesses, she’s made sure to include them. The library offers Mennonite/Amish romance fiction and mysteries, as well as how-to books on farming and construction. Ruth says, “Our Mennonite neighbors often come in the evening, returning and then checking out crates of books that they share with their neighbors.” Some of their favorite fiction books (several are best sellers) include Wanda E. Brunstetter’s The Healing Jar, Beverly Lewis’ The Atonement, Cindy Woodsmall’s His Amish Nanny, and Beth Wiseman’s Heart in Harmony.
What you may not know is that many libraries offer meeting rooms that you can reserve. Who would do that?
Beekeepers do it. The Penn Yan Beekeepers Association meets every second Saturday of the month in the Penn Yan Public Library. Left-handed crocheters do it – every fourth Saturday at the Pulteney Free Library. Cooks do it – at the Gorham Public Library (and, as appropriate, taste their creations). Yoga lovers do it weekly at the Auburn library. And, of course, nobody does it more than the assorted book groups that meet at all the libraries.
The breadth of offerings across the small Finger Lakes libraries is amazing. Cohocton library features a Lego club every Wednesday afternoon, a Bone Builders club for seniors, and a seed library run by the Homesteaders Club.
At libraries everywhere, kids get the lion’s share of attention. Mornings find toddlers wobbling and bobbling past bookshelves to plop down for story hour. Or clutching their mothers’ legs as they’re mesmerized by pythons, tarantulas, owls, vultures, and others creatures displayed by local naturalist.
The autumn day I stopped in at the Aurora Free Library, director Sandy Groth, stooping on the front lawn, was wrangling the enthusiastic attendees of her Teddy Bear Picnic indoors to a juggling show, but not before she paused to show off her long-sought monarch butterfly chrysalis dangling from the top of a small plastic box. Further inside, well known (and local) children’s author David Kirk made a surprise visit to display his latest Little Miss Spider book.
Roxanne Leyes, director of the Montour Falls library, embraces programs for little kids but says, “My goal is to keep them coming back as they get older.” To that end, she is developing programs for 8 to 12-year-olds.
Old Libraries with Surprises
Many libraries got their starts in the early 1800s as reading rooms in book-loving family homes that opened their doors for a few hours a week. By the late 1800s and early 1900s, wealthy benefactors began building free-standing libraries for growing communities. Given the era, it’s not surprising that some older libraries harbor intriguing architectural features designed to sustain their benefactors’ reputations.
Sandwiching the Aurora Free Library are two institutes representing the opposite sides of social punishment: a basement jail cell and the beautiful second floor Morgan Opera House (still serving as a theater). Like a Double Stuf Oreo, the filling between these two is a luscious library adorned with leaded-glass windows and wood carvings. Predating the Aurora library by about 15 years, the Queen Ann-style Waterloo library features its own small theater and 21 exquisite stained windows. Renowned stained glass artist Valerie O’Hara of the Pike Stained Glass Studio raves, “They’re just spectacular. They’re quintessential examples of that era and great examples of the Queen Ann style.”
Walk through the Auburn Seymour Public library, and you can’t help but stop and stare in awe: first at its lofty window-lined ceilings and then at the magnificent fluted woodwork, all done in the French style of Beaux Arts popular over a century ago. One look at the impressive Greek brick facade of the Montour Falls library (originally – and not surprisingly – a bank) will tempt you inside. There you’ll find something even better: a Tiffany leaded bow window that wraps around the side of the room. Centered and glowing in each panel is a colorful stained glass lantern of learning.
Although added onto, Moravia’s original 19th century Powers library remains intact and impressive with its large original dark wood bookcases in a room that resonates with the wisdom of 19th century scholars.
The Penn Yan library features the area’s only original Carnegie-funded public library (he gave $10,000). In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Pittsburgh steel magnate and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie gave away much of his vast Bill Gates-sized fortune to build free public libraries. Some 1,689 libraries – or almost half of the libraries in the country – were constructed with his funds.
Most libraries have an annual book sale to supplement public funds. Typically coordinated by a friends-of-the-library organization, such book sales serve as community rallying cries that pull diverse groups together to keep their libraries alive. For smaller libraries, sales typically result in a few thousand dollars. The $6,000 raised during the book sale at the Hector Fireman’s Carnival is crucial to the survival of the E.B. Pert Library. The Aurora Free Library takes a different approach. It counts on the annual auction and donations generated during the Book Lovers’ Ball at the Aurora Inn each September.
Not all libraries struggle to raise funds. In Cornell country, Friends of the Tompkins County Public Library enlists nearly 200 volunteers to create spring and fall book sales. In 2019, they raised nearly a half-million dollars. It’s one of the biggest fund-raising book sales in the country. Although the biggest portion went to their own library, they gave an ample slice to the Finger Lakes Library System, and several smaller slices to local educational and literacy groups.
Fortunately, several library co-ops arose to provide advanced services to small libraries. Nearly all the Finger Lakes libraries belong to one of three co-ops (Finger Lakes Library Service, the Pioneer Library System, or the Southern Tier Library System) that give them the depth of services and content expected from a full-size library. They give you access to a large number of databases, video and music streaming, inter-library loans, and online magazines, supply event and educational programs for local libraries to enact, and even offer grants and management resources to meet local library needs.
But what really makes the libraries work is you walking through the door to attend a computer class or a story time or to check out a book or a movie, or to help with shelving books. And when possible, to contribute a few dollars at your library’s fundraiser.