In Stockbridge Library's new chapter since renovation, attendance sees an uptick

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STOCKBRIDGE — A year after reopening following its $4 million renovation, the 1864 Stockbridge Library, Museum & Archives is enjoying a sharp spike in attendance and a surge in community programs from discussion on politics and on media literacy to investment strategy and cooking.

Attendance is up 69 percent for the current fiscal year compared to 2013-14, the last full year the building was open before the renovation that yielded a 29 percent gain in interior space.

Since July 1, nearly 190 programs have attracted more than 4,000 people, according to Library Director Katie O'Neil.

The library is seeking town funding of $174,075 for its fiscal 2018 budget. The requested taxpayer appropriation, part of the municipal operating budget article at Monday's annual town meeting, is up 5 percent from fiscal 2017 and would cover 73 percent of personnel costs for the staff of four full-time equivalents.

"We're a lean, mean working machine," O'Neil quipped during a conversation at the Main Street library, which is open 43 hours a week Tuesday through Saturday.

Town support represents about 45 percent of the total $392,195 library budget. Private fundraising covers most of the rest, and the association is aiming for a 10 percent increase in contributions from donors.

Library users are getting a bigger bang for their bucks, O'Neil pointed out, thanks to the addition of more diverse events as well as an increase in circulation of books and other library materials.

Concerts are being added to the mix, with a performance by the Berkshire Chamber Players last Friday. "We hope to hold a series of concerts next year," she said.

Overall attendance is projected to top 46,000 by the end of June, O'Neil said, based on 38,251 patrons for the 10 months ending April 30. In 2013-14, 27,186 library visitors were tallied by the electronic infrared "eye" at the entrances.

The expanded museum and archives, curated by Barbara Allen, also is seeing a record number of patrons. Donations of historic artifacts and documents are pouring in.

Most of the increased library patronage is based not only on interest in the renovation but also on new programming including book, investment and cookbook clubs, as well as an expanded speakers' series on weekend afternoons, including last month's well-received two-part "Consider the Source: Truth and News in the Misinformation Age."

The two programs attracted more than 100 people, including newcomers to the library's discussion series, O'Neil noted.

The renovation provided two meeting rooms for community groups, including Literacy Network of South Berkshire tutors and classes for Berkshire Waldorf High School students.

"That speaks to the space and people connecting here for various purposes," she said.

"This is a location where people come as a community to learn," said board of trustees Chairman Stuart Edelstein. "It's not just the resources we have, but the interaction among people who attend our programs. They come to the program and then they talk with the presenter and with each other, and there's this wonderful cross-fertilization of ideas."

As libraries evolve into community-wide information centers, technology plays a more prominent role, O'Neil said. "The internet is just another tool for information," O'Neil commented. "We're always a place to come for trusted, guided help with information. That's more important than ever before, especially for information literacy."

The library has expanded its computer work stations as a "community anchor institution" member of the Massachusetts Broadband Initiative, which provides enhanced fiber-connected download speeds, a major attraction for residents who lack access to high-speed internet.

Wi-Fi provided by the library enables the public to sit outside in good weather, "so even when we're not here, we're providing service," O'Brien said.

Research has shown that many students find it challenging to determine the separation between information and advertising, she added, so libraries are developing those skills for patrons, including the difference between news articles and opinion columns and editorials.

Programs for children run part-time by longtime Youth Librarian Vicki Cooper as she edges toward retirement will be handled by her successor, Jenney Maloy, who starts in October with plans to launch new initiatives.

"Our mission is to be a vibrant center of community life in Stockbridge, whether it's programs, the collection or the museum," O'Neil said. "Maybe the way we do things is a little bit different as we evolve, but the core values and mission remain."

She expressed gratitude for community support and the positive reaction to the renovation. "When you go after a historic building, you don't know what the reception is going to be," said O'Neil. "The highest compliment we've had was, `It's like you didn't change it, but it's better.'"

"We're a center for community life well beyond what you find here," Edelstein added.

He cited O'Brien's and Allen's leadership, the work of their support staff, "active, hard-working board members," a "dedicated team of volunteers" and the town's citizens "whose donations and financial support as voted on at the town meeting" as essential elements to maintaining the library association's vibrancy as a community center.

"Only if all of these elements remain strong can we continue to fulfill our mission," said Edelstein.

Reach correspondent Clarence Fanto at cfanto@yahoo.com or 413-637-2551.

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