Libraries offer much more than books these days

Poughkeepsie Library (photo by Will Dendis)

The library is a communal institution, a place where people can access a good many otherwise-expensive objects and services – books, movies, Internet – for free. Across its 70 member branches, the Mid-Hudson Library System offers tens of thousands of book titles, e-books, DVDs, CDs and more, as well as computers, free wi-fi (sometimes the fastest available in more remote towns) and priceless archives of local historical material – all of it available to members of the public, often without even requiring a library card.

This purpose, the library-as-information-hoard, is reflected in a number of digital services and resources offered by various branches. Ancestry.com, HeritageQuest, Newspapers.com: all these resources and more are available, for free, though differing by county and branch.

“From the minute customers found out Ancestry.com existed,” says Mid-Hudson Library System executive director Rebekkah Smith Aldrich, “they were hoping their local library would have it.” The digital genealogy service is an expensive one, especially for at-home access, and so is available only on-site at certain branches, like Poughkeepsie’s Adriance Memorial and Boardman Road Libraries, as well as in Kingston. Other, similar services, like HeritageQuest, are offered by a larger number of libraries, with the added benefit that they are accessible online from your home – a service limited to cardholders of the particular offering library. Call your local library to see what services they subscribe to.

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If you live near a library that offers Ancestry, HeritageQuest or a similar database, access can be as easy as stopping in during opening hours. “Anyone can come to the library and use those databases,” says the Poughkeepsie Library’s head of Local History Kira Thompson. “They’re open to everyone.” Those without a library card should ask for a visitor’s pass, and Thompson says that the curious-but-confused can always ask her or other staff for assistance with both digital services and the local materials available in Adriance Memorial’s Genealogy Room.

The availability for non-research resources differs according to county. The Ulster County system offers a wide variety of resources for use at home. Anyone with a card from an Ulster County library has access to streaming services like Kanopy, with its vast archive of international, historic and art films, as well as Acorn TV, which focuses primarily on British mysteries, and Qello Concerts, with over 1,700 high-quality concert films from artists like Queen, Beyoncé and Slipknot. Your barcode and PIN can be used to access The New York Times as well as 1,100 local and regional newspapers through Gale Newsstand, and, through RB Digital, a collection of 1,000 magazines. They also subscribe to services that provide health information, foreign language instruction and more, as well as access to an online archive of free comic books.

Beyond these general services, every library has its own unique collection of historical materials, from town and village records to digitized local newspapers to, in the case of Poughkeepsie, an up-to-date obituary index – “I go through the paper and write down all the obituaries every day,” says Thompson – available to anyone who asks. Whether professional or amateur, any researcher need only ask staff to get on their way. “Absolutely everyone in the region can walk into their library and tap into the resource that is the staff,” says Aldrich. She underlines that, even if a library does not have specific materials, its staff will most likely know where to find them, or whom to ask next: “If you come in and ask a reference question, the staff at the library could connect you with those resources.”

Aldrich says that she is fascinated by the tactile nature of Ancestry.com: the way that you not only learn the “what” of your family history, but also see “how.” “You can actually see where someone’s hand touched the page,” she says. As a long-term Dutchess County resident, with family going back several generations, she is also enthused by the Hudson River Valley Heritage collection, which brings together all manner of documents, photographs and assorted ephemera from a number of collections, from the personal library of Vincent Astor to the Bard College archive, the Haviland-Heidgerd Collection of New Paltz’s Elting Memorial Library and Friends of Historic Kingston. For Aldrich, it provides a connection to a unique heritage that spans generations: “It’s very cool to see the places my grandfather told me about from when he was a kid.”

Even more special, in fact, is a service that Aldrich calls “The Library of Things,” by which branches can lend out not books, files or films, but…well, things: “Museum passes, gardening tools; one even loans a treasure washer,” she says. “Really unexpected stuff.” The library, once again, is focused on more than knowledge, more than literacy, but rather on community. And, once more, all you have to do is ask.

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