Our Cultural Center -November/December 2010

Making a meal, setting a table and entertaining close friends are part of what make the holidays a special time for islanders

by: Joshua H. Balling

photography by: Jim Powers

The Atheneum opened its doors in 1834, and from day one was much more than just a lending library.

It was a community center, a cultural hub, where islanders over the next 176 years could get the news of the day from around the world, or listen to some of the foremost speakers of the time. Frederick Douglass, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau all spoke from the stage in the Great Hall of the building that was one of the very first structures to rise from the ashes of the Great Fire of 1846.

Fast-forward to the 21st century, and while so much has changed in the ensuing 176 years, right down to the fundamental ways in which we communicate with each other and absorb the written word, the Atheneum's core mission has not changed at all: to culturally enrich the lives of all islanders.

"It happens year-round, and it cuts across all ages. It's a goal that's embedded in the Atheneum's history, but it's one of those timeless goals that no matter what changes to the landscape you might have, that goal is still at the center of how we identify ourselves, and a responsibility to the community we take very seriously," executive director Molly Anderson said.

The 21st century Atheneum shares many similarities with its 19th-century private lending-library predecessor – it opened its doors to the public in 1900 – but is constantly evolving as the times change, Anderson continued.

"When you are an isolated community, when we're living in a world that at times can isolate people so that they're not only isolated geographically, but individually, in part because of technology, an institution like ours which pulls people together for programs, or to take home materials, or to have a place to meet, all those activities become a critical element to counterbalance the isolation," she said.

On any given day, the Greek Revival building at the corner of Federal and India streets is an oasis from the hustle and bustle of downtown Nantucket and the world beyond, a place to check out a book or peruse a magazine in the reading room, attend a storytelling session or practice Tai Chi in the garden outside the Weezie Children's Library, access the Internet to communicate with friends near and far, sit in on a speech, concert or play human chess in the Great Hall.

It remains a true year-round community hub, a steward in many ways of the island's cultural identity, and Anderson sees it continuing that way for generations to come, even as the very ways in which information, entertainment – and culture – change before our eyes.

"We can have such busy, busy lives today, and it is somewhat driven by technology. The way e-mail operates now, we're always at the beck and call of answering and being connected, and I really find from the people I encounter here, that there is this hunger for two things: space to reflect and communicate, and I think a library promotes that through its reading and literacy efforts, to recognize and promote books, and they themselves promote reflection and contemplation, and while connectiveness is playing out electronically, there is a real hunger for human connectiveness," Anderson said.

That being said, the Atheneum was one of the first institutions on the island to embrace the Internet, and today, the entire building and its grounds are enveloped in a free wi-fi bubble allowing anyone with a laptop and an Internet connection to access the World Wide Web.

Anderson sometimes worries about how "wired" the world has become, and even with all its high-tech ability, sees the Atheneum as a sanctuary where one can come and "unplug."

"A place like the Atheneum that draws people out of their homes and away from their computers is important. It's important for the future, because there will always be a need for a place that draws people together. An easy example is watching a film at home, as opposed to in a theater with a group. The same is true with music. It can be enjoyed very much on an iPod, or some wonderful Bose speakers, but it can never replace hearing music in a room with other people, having musicians right there, that first-hand experience. We're always going to need that. This institution provides that human contact," said Anderson, who went without e-mail and cell-phone connectivity during a two-week fall vacation to Europe, and called it a welcome "purge" which provided balance and peace of mind.

There is something special about being around books, newspapers and magazines – and turning real pages – that a Kindle or an iPad simply can't replace, she believes. And when people gather in one spot to do that, something magical happens.

"I see people on the way from Mass, or to the post office, and they come here. They stop on the front steps because they've met a friend, they come in, read a magazine, pick up a book, stop and talk. The garden is another perfect example. It's a place where people encounter neighbors, friends, sometimes new people. Those informal community interactions are critical," Anderson said.

"The meeting spaces we offer too, for public forums, serve a similar purpose. That exchange of ideas, that forum, the marketplace of ideas, is something that public libraries have done for years and years and years. I don't see it ever entirely replaced by a blog, or Twitter, or Facebook. People want human contact. I think there will always be room for this kind of place in the lives of Nantucketers."

Counteracting the "digital divide"

Yet Anderson readily concedes that technology is at the heart of the modern-day Atheneum, and sees it not so much as a necessary evil but as a way to further broaden the horizons of the community and expand the services the library can offer.

"I never like to think in binary terms, as either/or. I think that this becomes especially important in the challenging economic times we are experiencing, which I don't see going away any time soon. The public library provides a way to counteract the digital divide," Anderson said. "The fact that we offer free access to the Internet and computer access is always important, but it's even more critical now. I know people who have had computers in their homes but couldn't afford to keep up with the latest change, and now see the library as the only source for using computers, not only for getting on the Internet to get in touch with family and friends, but to search for jobs, or to improve their skills. It's become a very valuable resource, one that's free and accessible, and there's really nowhere else on the island where that is happening."

In the second-floor Great Hall, islanders and visitors alike plug in their laptops during the day, and concerts, lectures and community meetings are held at night. It's the nerve center for scholarly research – and Facebook updates.

"The information people need is changing so much. It used to be that the library was the only show in town if you needed information on something," reference librarian Lincoln Thurber said.

"You had to come into the library, and have librarians help you find a book. Now it's the Internet. People are accessing information far more easily all the time. The amount of information accessed on a daily basis would seem out of this world to someone 20 years ago. People are becoming such information consumers, and the Atheneum can be a facilitator for that, whether it's just wi-fi, or helping people find what they are looking for. That's where the library comes in," he continued.

"We're far more savvy about helping people find what they need. We're just a little more keyed in. That's where I see the library going. This gush of information that people want at their fingertips, we are able and experienced in helping them navigate that."

Anderson agreed.

"The rapid explosion of information available to the average citizen is enormous. That's the plus of the information age we live in, but it comes with a darker side, in that there is no kind of quality control or handle on that information," she said. "When you Google something, you are not getting the best sources, you're getting the most popular ones. In the past, we very carefully chose the best reference materials, and the most reliable. We still do that. It's a very critical role that the library can have for the public. I don't see that role ever diminishing. Technology has a lot of pluses. Research in the future will continue to be driven by technology, but it is very, very important that it is interpreted correctly."

Lifeblood of the library

The lifeblood of any library is what occupies its collections, and the Atheneum is no exception. The books, periodicals, musical recordings, historical documents and reference materials are its currency.

It is the job of the staff in the circulation and reference departments to make sure the right materials find their way into the right hands, whether they're located among the stacks of the India Street library or in another building on the mainland, ready to be whisked to the island at the first Internet request.

As the recession has taken a severe financial hit on island families, more and more residents are taking advantage of the Atheneum. The numbers don't lie. Anderson reported an 11 percent increase in visitors to the library and a 10 percent increase in borrowing in the most recent fiscal year.

Besides its collection of over 47,000 books, magazines and music CDs, the Atheneum now has a collection of 3,800 DVDs, and the library is now the sole source for video rentals on Nantucket other than the self-service kiosks at The Stop & Shop and Grand Union.

"We're seeing it on a day-to-day basis, that since this economic crisis, the Atheneum has seen a greater use of its resources than ever before," Anderson said. "I do think people who in the past thought 'I'll order a book on Amazon,' there's now a cost-containment that individuals are making, and they say 'maybe I'll go down and borrow a book instead'."

Kid stuff

The Weezie Library for Children is a sanctuary from the adult world outside, furnished with oversized stuffed-animal chairs created by island artist Clara Urbahn and furniture seemingly more appropriate to Lilliput than Nantucket.

The Weezie Library is stocked with books, DVDs and music with more arriving all the time, and home to a vibrant schedule of programming that includes live music, storytelling, and arts and crafts projects.

It also provides a good portion of the building's energy.

"I feel like any program for youth within a larger institution, any cultural institution, will be a necessity and carry a certain energy, because that's what young people have. There's a vibrancy of youth that brings a smile to anyone's face," children's librarian Maggie Sullivan said. "It's wonderfully chaotic. There's an energy, a real life in the children's library that infuses the whole institution. It's part of our mission, but it can also be the part that brings a real spark. There's a good reason our part of the building is a little separate from the main library. On a rainy or a snowy day, it can be totally crazy, totally noisy. We wouldn't want to put that in the middle of the library, but it's wonderful what's going on here. People walk down and it can be crazy, but in a wonderful way."

Always something going on

The Atheneum takes seriously its historic mandate to provide educational and cultural programs for islanders, and to do it on a year-round basis. There are frequent opportunities to see a concert, attend a play or listen to a lecture at ant number of venues in the summer on Nantucket, but that's generally not true in the winter – except at the Atheneum. The library's list of 20th and 21st century speakers is too long to print, but includes Buzz Bissinger, John Chancellor, Frank Conroy, Katie Couric, John Kenneth Galbraith, David Halberstam, Sebastian Junger, Jhumpa Lahiri, William Least Heat Moon, David McCullough, Nathaniel Philbrick, Anna Quindlen, Ned Rorem, Tim Russert, Pierre Salinger and Calvin Trillin. Its musical performances have run the gamut from Native American drum circles to traditional Irish bands to countless island musicians. Its sponsored both international and island-based documentary film series in recent years.

"We spend considerable time planning programs that will appeal to a broad section of people, particularly in the off-season. Metaphorically, I see it as keeping the lights on during the darker months, and encouraging people to come out of their houses and come on down to the library and have a communal experience here," Anderson said. "With everything we offer, from music to speakers to international films, we've seen some wonderful friendships develop."

On the horizon

Anderson and the Atheneum have big plans for the future, and while they involve taking advantage of cutting-edge technology, they also center around good-old-fashioned human interaction.

"On the programming side, we're looking at some really interesting things, using technology to bring simulcast performances, some domestic and some international, to the Great Hall, upgrading our technology, and giving people access to educational and entertainment programs. It can never replace having Greta Feeney come and sing an aria on our stage, but wouldn't it be wonderful to simulcast the Metropolitan Opera a couple times a year?," Anderson said.

The Atheneum is also hoping to begin digitizing its periodicals, starting with The Inquirer and Mirror.

"We're so excited about the possibilities. Having keyword access to stories would be phenomenal, and people could be searching them from afar, and it's a much better preservation vehicle than microfilm. We're hoping that if we digitize the I&M, it will be the start of digitizing other resources," Anderson said.

"I'm very optimistic about the future, but it never takes us very far away from our original goal of enriching the lives of islanders. Who knows what is just around the corner that will help us do that?" 

Joshua Balling is the associate editor of Nantucket Today and the assistant editor of The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket's newspaper since 1821.

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