While it’s hard to resist the cut-rate prices of used books from online purveyors such as Abe Books, some of us will always prefer browsing the shelves to clicking through the lists onscreen. One of my favorite places to do that is the local library – not only because I don’t have to feel guilty about not buying a book if I’m out of pocket that day, but also because of the out-of-print gems that one discovers tucked away in the stacks.
Of course, I’m a bit of an anachronism: Today, many people – those who don’t have such services at home, or travelers – use the library as their personal media center, going online and printing out boarding tickets. Some are perhaps not as excited about the print books as they are by the books on DVD or CD, which help them weather that daily commute to the city or long road trip out to Nebraska.
The Starr Library in Rhinebeck, which recently celebrated its 150th anniversary, offers all this and more: For the last six months, it has been loaning out three Nooks. People have a choice of 25 titles, and they can test them out for three weeks. “In some ways I’m doing the manufacturers a favor by letting people try out the technology for free,” said Library director Steven Cook, noting that the waiting list was a mile long. Patrons can also read the Wall Street Journal or Business Week on a couple of iPads available for use in the Library.
If you already own an e-book reader, you can simply download books from the Mid-Hudson Library System site. Is Cook worried that such amenities might be spurring on the obsolescence of institutions such as his? Not at all: He’s confident that print will be around for “a long, long time – we’re not in the Star Trek era yet.”
One advantage of the old paper-and-leatherbound media is the depth of selection: “There are many works no one will ever see a reason or need to digitalize,” noted Cook. Another is the simple ease of holding a real book, which he predicted many readers will prefer for a long, long time. Keeping a balance between the traditional and the new is an important part of his job. “Libraries are working hard to embrace new technology, and yet remain connected to every reader who comes through the door,” he said.
Mrs. Mary R. Miller, granddaughter of general Philip Schuyler, probably couldn’t have imagined the day when the small institution that she founded in 1857, stocked with books, pamphlets and magazines donated by William Astor, Henry Delamater and other prominent local residents, would be plugged into a global electronic information network and people would read books on machines. But maybe she could, for her venture to open two rooms to the public for reading and book-lending was conceived as an experiment, progressive in its day.
Officially incorporated in 1862 – making it the oldest library in the 66-library Mid-Hudson system – the Starr later morphed into a community center, with the addition of a lecture hall, dining room and meeting room for sewing circles and women’s missionary work. In 1906, a portion of the building was leased to the YMCA, and a swimming pool, bowling alleys and game rooms were added. The auditorium later hosted movies and basketball games, and the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts met in the facility; during wartime, the Red Cross made bandages and collected care packages at the Starr. The Library continued to expand, becoming the first to join the newly formed Mid-Hudson Library System in 1959.
In 1979, the Starr moved to a new, modernized building at 68 West Market Street, subsequently renovated and expanded in 2006. Since then, its clientele has mushroomed, with nearly 130,000 people visiting the Starr in 2011. Cook said that the Library currently offers 11 computers with high-speed Internet connected to printers and a handful of WiFi networks, including secure or extra-fast ones. Regular users mostly consist of high school and college students, senior citizens who don’t have Internet service or a printer at home and travelers doing business on their laptops.
Cook said that his materials budget, which has remained consistent – the total annual budget is $340,000 – is distributed among books-in-print, CDs and DVDs. “We work hard to find the right mix of formats to cover the basics,” he said. He can track demand for DVDs and books, and if he notices a lot of people queuing up for a hot best-seller, he’ll order a second copy.
As of old, “We really serve as a community center,” he said, noting that all kinds of groups, focused on everything from local history to birthing to Medicare support, meet at the facility. “A little noise is okay,” he said.
The Starr is open seven days a week. For hours and more information, visit www.starrlibrary.org.