Twenty Two Berkshire County Libraries in Three Days?!? You Bet!!
Holy Smokes! What a week - TWENTY FOUR libraries - a Library Land record. We knew this week was going to be a wild week and was it ever.
It all started when the good people at 1Berkshire - the official Regional Economic Development Organization and Regional Tourism Council of Berkshire County - thought it would be cool to have someone write about the various libraries around the county. When they learned about Library Land, they reached out to ask if we’d be interested to visit Berkshire county and see some of the libraries there. We met with Cathy Husid, the PR person for 1Berkshire, to discuss the trip and how we might share what we saw and learned. We were glad for the invitation since visiting libraries in the western part of the state would take some planning and effort.
We put together a pretty aggressive itinerary - seven libraries per day for three days - and liked our chances. Early on Monday morning we started our journey to the west.
Our first stop was the Lee Public Library. We were told this is the only Carnegie library in Berkshire county. A few people we’ve met dispute the claim but in visiting many libraries around the county we didn’t see another one. The old main section is lovely, with two reading rooms. An addition was built in the mid-1970s (77/78). At the time, they considered using the new space for a pool!
We had the opportunity to talk Damon Vorce, the director, who gave us some of the library’s backstory and gave us some great recommendations for other libraries to check out and people to meet. The library does need a little work to get it into better condition but we learned there are plans to do some of that work - including replacements of the carpets next month. Library Land Score: 3.91.
Next was The Mason Library in Great Barrington. The original building is from 1913 with addition in 2010(?). It's a large comfortable library with a beautiful vaulted reading room. Plenty of seating areas and multiple study rooms. The old section oozes the sense of a classic library.
The main collection is located to the rear of the library in the addition. There are a couple of nice little study rooms and a local history room. Limited on-site parking is made up for by plenty of free street parking all around.
Plenty of neat historical stuff around: maps, paintings, sculpture, artifacts, and whatnot. There's also a special section of local authors. It's a quiet and stately library and one we really enjoyed visiting. Library Land Score: 4.55.
The Mount Washington Public Library is located in the town’s tiny town hall. Because of the town’s sparse population and prevalence of trees, one wag told us this was a “library for bears.” The library is just a few shelves in the old 1779 building. To check out materials, patrons write their names on the books’ slips and leave it for the librarian to check next time she's at the library. If a book is late, you get a call at home!
The town hall is only open two days a week, so the library has the same limited hours. It is probably the smallest and most rustic of the libraries we’ve visited. The drive to the library is pretty. It’s also worth noting that Mount Washington has its own high-speed fiber broadband network, which is critical for the community. Library Land Score: 3.91.
The Egremont Free Library is another small rural library. Its librarian, Lesliann Furcht, is also responsible for the Mount Washington Library. The Egremont Library is a relatively large space (large when compared to Mount Washington, at least) that is divided into discrete thematic areas: kids, fiction, recent arrivals, etc.
There are a few interesting things about the library. Certainly it was really fun to talk with Lesliann about her experiences as the librarian, and her previous career in public relations. She was a wealth of information about what’s happening in the library and around the town.
There’s also an impressive attempt to cater to bicyclists. Often, when we talk about transportation, we think of cars or public transit. Most libraries have bike racks, but Egremont has an air pump and a collection of repair tools available for riders. It was pretty cool to see. LIbrary Land Score: 4.27.
Library tourists need sustenance. We had a great “breakfast all day” lunch on the back deck of Mom’s Country Cafe in South Egremont.
We arrived at the Otis Public Library just before closing time - but that didn’t mean we weren’t given a nice tour. It’s a small library with limited hours, but a warm and enthusiastic staff. There’s a nice little town museum on the top floor, which does a great job telling the story of the town. While not in the museum, there’s a table and chairs from FDR's time as governor of N.Y. that’s cool to see.
The museum and a few other spaces are usable as study areas, with the staff willing to accept reservations and close doors if quiet is needed (or noise is planned). Otis recognizes that they have a large number of remote workers - especially during the summer months - and they have set up picnic tables outside so people can use the wifi after hours. Next door to the library is a community center that was once called "Harmony Hall." It was a dance club and was a regular haunt of Eleanor Roosevelt when she was in the area. How neat is that! Library Land Score: 4.36.
The New Marlborough Public Library has a pretty interesting backstory. It opened in 1998 after the old library was lost to fire. Apparently some teens tossed a burning incense stick into the book return, setting the building afire. We were a little skeptical, but that’s their story and they’re sticking to it! The original building was a Carnegie Library and its loss brought the total in the county down to just the one in Lee.
The staff was a lot of fun - humoring our fire inquires and offering us access to their kitchen for tea. The library is a pretty typical 90s era library. Spacious and comfortable, but doesn't have the pizzazz of post-information-age libraries nor the charm of an antique one. It's a very quiet library - except for a few visiting finches (caged) and uninvited crickets (on the loose). Library Land Score: 4.09.
Our last library of the day was the Monterey Public Library. What a fantastic place! Monterey is a small town, with just 900 year-round residents (many more when you count seasonal people), but still, a small community. Its library - paid for in part with state construction grants, money from the town and Friends - is amazing. The cost of the project was under $4M, which should give hope to small libraries that need renovations, restorations or replacements.
The original one-room library remains in use as a gallery and function space. It was refurbished and cleaned up and is quite beautiful, with great woodwork, original lighting fixtures, contemporary art, and a really wonderful grandfather clock.
The new section of the library is really great too. It's a V-shaped construction with youth, movies, audiobooks, and other media to the right and the main collection to the left. There are two very nice study rooms at the back of the left-hand side of the building. The rear walls of both sides of the V are large windows looking out over a reading deck and beyond and below that, a waterfall.
The space is so comfortable and features an absolute ton of orange decor. Mark Makuc, the director, has been there since 1978 when he began as a volunteer. It must be amazing to have had that journey - not just from volunteer to director, but also overseeing the amazing transformation this library has seen.
The library is also really flexible. Almost all of the stacks are on wheels, which allows the room to be reconfigured quickly and easily. The same is true for much of the rest of the furniture. The lighting is tasteful and indirect, creating a nice even illumination. Wifi is fast and easy to access. As contemporary as the new space feels, there are also really classic touches - the wood of the shelves and cabinetry, for example.
This is a great example of the post-information age trend in library design and construction. It's an amazing place. They did it, thanks in large part, due to the support of the community. We spoke with a few patrons and all were so pleased with their new library, as well they should be! Library Land Score: 4.82.
On that positive note, we ended the first day of our Berkshires tour. We had a super delicious dinner at Xicohtencalt (Xico to the locals), a creative Mexican restaurant in Great Barrington. It was still on the early side so we decided to bowl a few strings at Cove Bowling. Being from Eastern Massachusetts, we’re more candlepin guys but we managed to break 100 every time! 1Berkshire was kind to secure lodgings for us during this tour and we really enjoyed our stay at the Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott Great Barrington Lenox/Berkshires
Our second day started with delicious hotel waffles. There's always something magical about flipping that iron and popping out some piping hot golden brown and delicious waffles. Yum!
After breakfast, we drove to Lenox, where we met with Lindsey Schmid, Vice President of Tourism & Marketing, 1Berkshire at the Haven Cafe in Lenox. We had a great conversation that touched on the libraries we had seen the previous day, her work promoting the Berkshires as a destination to live, work, and play - as well as some of the challenges faced by the region. Chief among these is the problem of connectivity, both in terms of cell coverage and broadband penetration. That’s certainly something we experienced first hand during our travels - but we also saw some interesting ways communities are working to address the issue,
Our first library of the day was the amazing Lenox Library. We were fortunate to have Any Lafave, the director of the library, show us around and share its collection.
We were joined for this tour by Lindsey and Ben Garver, long-time photographer for the Berkshire Eagle. We saw their wonderful children's space, super comfortable reading rooms, and the reference room housed in a courtroom (the building served as the county courthouse until 1868). The spaces are just beautiful - but that wasn't something that's always been recognized. We learned the courtroom - with its gorgeous domed ceiling - had once suffered the indignity of drop ceilings!
A library is about more than its space, the collection is critical. The collection at Lenox is really outstanding. For example, the library’s outstanding music collection includes 8,000 CDs, 500 LPs, and nearly 2,000 musical scores. Its rare books and documents include a “mundane” letter from Abraham Lincoln to a former House colleague. Despite its prosaic nature, to see and read a note in Lincoln’s hand was a special experience.
We also saw the engagement between the library and the community. We were lucky to be on hand when a few waves of kids made their way into the library. There are also plenty of events, as well as a neat little agriculture program that was just wrapping up for the year. All-in-all, it was a really wonderful visit. Library Land Score: 4.55.
Our heads spinning from our visit, we took a spin down the road to the Richmond Free Public Library. This is a small, but very comfortable, town library. The interior of the library is paneled in unfinished wooden planks and this gives the library the wonderful scent of warm wood - reminiscent of a country store. There is a nice seating area at the rear of the library with comfortable recliners. Sitting in these in the warm quiet of the library was a real treat.
It wasn’t the only highlight of this sweet little library. There’s also a small local history room, a puzzle table, and a grandfather clock that was made for the library by a patron. It was also clear that the library serves as a social touchpoint for the community. During our visit, there was a healthy flow of people and all spent time talking together and with the library’s friendly staff. Library Land Score: 4.27.
From there we visited the West Stockbridge Public Library. This is a town library that shares a building with a number of other town offices and departments. We go back and forth about co-location and can certainly see the appeal for towns to house as much as possible in a single facility.
As we walked to the library from the parking lot, there was a large sign featuring a photograph of a bust of Lincoln. As we reached the door, there was the image again - and at the back of the library, there was the bust itself. It is a reproduction of a bust made by Leonard Volk in 1860. We asked the library staff if they knew the story behind the statue and posters, but they didn’t have much detail. I did a little digging and it seems the piece’s history in West Stockbridge is shrouded in mystery. Library Land Score: 4.00.
We decided it was time for lunch - and for an interview with BusinessWest. It was at this point that the connectivity issues came into focus for us. We had gone into Stockbridge to find something to eat and to make our call. The phone rang. We could hear, but our caller couldn’t. We started driving. We previously had signal in Great Barrington so we headed in that direction. When the signal seemed strong we called back. It was still choppy. We finally had a strong signal so pulled off the road into a parking lot. The call finally happened, but not before someone from the business in whose lot we had parked came to see what we were doing.
After the call and a quick lunch, we went to the Stockbridge Library, Museum, and Archives - What a fantastic place! The library traces its roots back to 1789. It has morphed and grown quite a bit over the past 230 years. The most recent evolution of the library was a major renovation that was completed in 2016. The updated and expanded library is a striking success. The wonderful antique aspects have been preserved but also enhanced.
The large reading rooms and the chiming grandfather clock harken to the library’s past, while the mosaic floors, expanded third-level, and many of the materials used are strikingly contemporary. They are brought together so effortlessly and effectively that the result is just super. The director, Katie O’Neil, shared a quote from a patron that really sums it up nicely, “it’s like you didn’t change anything, but it’s better.”
Katie was kind enough to show us around, highlighting a few of the highlights, pointing out how space has been opened up, and new features added - including a really comfortable study/meeting room that we were able to use for a client call.
In the basement of the library are the Museum and Archives. We’ve written about some of the various library museums we’ve seen in Library Land. Some are well structured with curated exhibits, while others are mystifying assortments of seemingly random objects. Sturbridge is solidly in the former category.
In a clean and comfortable space, you will find a well-designed exhibition of items, all of which are related to the history and people of Stockbridge. The most amazing item for me was Jonathan Edwards’ writing desk. Perhaps best known for his sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” Edwards designed this rotating six-sided desk so he could switch quickly between subjects and sources. It was pretty cool. Library Land Score: 4.64.
Somehow, I’d managed to screw up our schedule, which meant we would need to scramble if we were going to see seven libraries as planned.
We raced to the Ramsdell Public Library in Housatonic. This is a branch of the Great Barrington library. Earlier, I mentioned some dispute about the number of Carnegie libraries in Berkshire County. It was easy to see how people might mistake this beautiful little jewel box for a Carnegie. From the exterior, it’s a spitting image of one. That sensation persists and is reinforced when you enter the building.
There is a lovely rotunda with comfortable reading rooms to either side. Toward the rear of the rotunda is the circulation desk and then the stacks. We arrived close to closing time and so weren’t able to spend as much time as we would have liked exploring. We did notice - and asked about - the library's lack of accessibility. The staff recognizes this fact, but because they are a branch library the library is not required to make changes for ADA compliance. This seemed odd.
It was a short visit but we were able to appreciate the quiet and comfortable spaces - but couldn’t have if we had mobility issues, Library Land Score: 4.00.
The day was waning, but we still had at least one more library to see, and that was the Berkshire Athenaeum in Pittsfield. Let me take a step back here. I visited the Athenaeum some time ago and didn’t have an awesome experience. I was surprised by the architecture (somehow, “athenaeum” and “brutalism” just don’t reconcile in my brain), didn’t get a warm and fuzzy feeling from the staff, etc.
The thing is, we kept hearing how awesome the library was so I went in with an open mind and I’m sure glad I did. As soon as we walked through the door, Alex at the circulation desk asked how we were with a happy smile. We were able to meet another Alex - last name Raczkowski - the library director and a really energetic and engaging person. We talked about the first visit. Then, Alex showed us around the library, including the local history room and their outstanding Melville collection.
We saw that the library was serving as a polling place for a local election that day, and we talked about the programs and the popularity of the Library of Things collection. Clearly, we had to think about revising our score! We left the Athenaeum with a much more positive impression than I’d had after my first visit - and that positive feeling would only increase during a subsequent visit later that evening. But first, dinner!
One thing about Adam is that the man loves a good meal. It’s one of the pleasures of traveling with him in Library Land and this would be no exception. Way back in the 80s, Adam had worked at the Ritz-Carlton in Boston. It was there that he worked with a fellow named Jae Chung, who went on to restaurant success with a string of pan-Asian fusion restaurants in Greater Boston and later, the Berkshires. We went to Jae’s Restaurant in Pittsfield and had a really outstanding meal. We were also able to spend some time talking and visiting with Jae, which was a real treat.
Refreshed by our meal, we returned to the Athenaeum for a meeting with Lisa Green, editor of Rural Intelligence. Lisa is a native of the Twin Cities but has seemingly found her forever home it Pittsfield. We talked about how the library became the center of her community as a new transplant to the city and how it has remained an important part of her life even after many years. That really was the final straw - we accepted that we’d been wrong on our first visit and revised the score! Library Land Score: 4.36.
Our work done, we headed back to Great Barrington in search of some fun. We stopped by the bowling alley, but just weren’t feeling it (beyond sole shoulder and thumb). So we headed down to the heart of town to see what was going on. It turns out Great Barrington is a pretty quiet place weeknights. We were fortunate to find The Well and had a couple of beers and played some backgammon. It was a fitting end to a great day.
After another hearty hotel breakfast (and Adam's time in the hot tub), we prepared to head north. We had only seen six libraries on the previous day and so would need to work hard to reach our goal of 21 libraries in three days. Things did not start well.
Our planned first stop was in Cheshire. Unfortunately, when we arrived, we learned the library was closed. It has happened - before and since - that Google has inaccurate day/hour information for libraries. We’ve spoken to staff who said they’ve tried reaching out to Google to correct the information to no avail. How annoying!
The Adams Free Library was also one I’d seen before, but it’s such a beautiful building that we decided to check it out. The highlight of the buff brick beaux-arts building is certainly the Grand Army of the Republic Hall on the second floor. When first opened in 1899, the building was intended to serve two purposes: as a library but also as a place for Union veterans of the Civil War to meet, hence the G.A.R. Hall. It’s a really amazing space.
The library was renovated in 2014 to make it accessible. This was accomplished while still maintaining the historic character of the building. As a library, Adams is a pretty typical town library (albeit a large town). In the entry hall, the circulation desk looks out into the library. To the right and left are stairs leading up to the G.A.R. Hall. Also to the sides of the entry hall are a reading room and the library offices. Further back are the stacks, which are quite nice, and beyond them the children’s section.
During our visit, the library was fairly active with a few people sitting reading the news, a couple of job hunters, and others simply browsing. It’s a comfortable and beautiful building that is totally worth a visit. Library Land Score: 4.00.
As we got back into the car, we realized that several of the libraries we planned to visit were closed! How, what, why?! Thankfully, we were able to reorganize our plans and could see a path to 21 libraries.
Our tour next took us to Williamstown. There are a number of libraries in town, the David and Joyce Milne Public Library, as well as the ones associated with Williams College and the Clark Art Museum. Although our focus is on public libraries, we’d like to take a few moments to talk about these other libraries, both of which are open to the public.
The Sawyer Library at Williams College is really something. The Sawyer Library includes a nice antique building that adjoins a dazzling modern one. The new portion of the library is breathtaking. There are loads of study areas, inspiring spaces, and services and amenities that have to make student life more productive and enjoyable. We also visited the school’s special collections rooms, which included James Madison’s copy of the Constitution with his handwritten notes and George Washington’s copy of The Federalist Papers. Pretty cool stuff.
We weren’t able to visit The Clark library on this trip, but we heard of a service they offer that sounds simply amazing. One can apparently request to see elements of their collection not currently on public display. We were told that with 24 hours notice these items can be viewed privately. It’s something we’ll check out (no pun intended) on a future trip.
Back to our regular programming . . . As for the Milne Public Library, it’s an interesting place. The library moved into the space in 1999. Prior to its life as a library, the building was a school. We’ve seen plenty of libraries co-located with schools or in parts or what had been schools, but this is the first we’ve seen that encompasses an entire former school building and grounds.
The fact that it was once a school offers the library several benefits. First, the entire space is on one floor with no stairs, making it very accessible. Second, the classrooms serve as excellent offices and meeting rooms. The old gymnasium serves as a sorting, storage, and staging area for book sale activities. Milne has one of the coolest book sales we’ve heard of. They run an off-site bookstore on Spring Street in Williamstown.
The staff, including Roz Broch, the assistant director, and Alex Charron from buildings and grounds, were generous with their time, insights, and enthusiasm. Library Land Score: 4.18.
We’ve both visited North Adams on several occasions, but neither of us had ever visited the stately old North Adams Public Library. Originally the home of the Blackington family, the building was purchased for use as a library in the 1890s. The two reading rooms in the old section of the building are stunning. There’s also an amazing staircase that leads to a modernized second floor which houses the children’s section, among other things.
During our visit, the library was hosting a weekly employment/job search program run by MassHire that appeared to be well attended. We saw a steady flow of patrons and a lot of interaction between patrons and staff. There was a lot of positive energy. We were able to meet with Sarah Sanfilippo, the library’s director. She’s a relatively recent arrival but is clearly excited about her new post - and a great guide. Library Land Score: 4.36.
Just a few minutes from North Adams is the town of Clarksburg and its small Clarksburg Public Library. It’s co-located in a school and the library staff says the library can get really busy when school lets out and the kids come in - and that it’s wonderful. That’s something we have heard at libraries across the state, kids and libraries are a natural combination.
We heard that DVDs are the most circulated items at the library - and that, too, is something we have heard at other libraries. The staff in Clarksburg was philosophical about it, saying they’re happy to have people come into the library even if they aren’t borrowing books. It does seem to vary from library-to-library. Overall, a comfortable little library. Library Land Score: 4.00.
We zipped down to visit the Lanesborough Public Library. It’s another small, one-room library co-located at the town hall. When we pulled up we got a real scare. Another patron walked toward the library and - seeing a sign on the door - turned and went back to their car. Was this library closed too? No, it had just stopped taking book donations. What a relief.
Inside, the library is a single large room in the town hall. Even over the course of this tour, we continued to vacillate about the library in town hall question. I appreciate the sense it can make, efficiencies and whatnot - but even so, co-located libraries should have their own distinct character. Lanesborough is a quiet and efficient library; its steady flow of patrons - especially kids and caregivers - make it feel like a comfortable and well-liked library. Library Land Score: 3.82.
Looking at our Google Map and a clock, we breathed sighs of relief. We’d been to five libraries already (six if you count the Sawyer) and were feeling great about achieving our goal of visiting 21 Berkshire County libraries.
On we sped, to the marvelous Dalton Free Library. Now here is a co-location that really works well. The library and other town offices share a site. But the library feels apart and independent of the rest of the building. The space itself is pretty amazing. You enter a large room that was apparently at one point a theater. It’s got a high-arched ceiling, comfortable seating areas, and nice old stacks and mezzanine.
A more modern addition to the rear of the building has some meeting/work areas and the rest of the collection. It’s a quiet and traditional library. Chatting with the librarian she told me about her first library job - as a page at the New York Public Library. She said she and the other pages would wear roller skates to zip around the basement stacks reshelving! That must have been fun. Library Land Score: 3.91.
As we headed to the Hinsdale Public Library, we stopped for much-needed tea, coffee, and a french toast yogurt muffin at Juice N’ Java in Dalton. We were in the home stretch and couldn’t afford to lose steam yet. We were in for a treat with this little library. From the outside, it looks like something from a fairytale or, perhaps, a gingerbread house. It’s a stone building with a tall peaked roof and wonderful woodwork. Inside, the library has vaulted ceilings with really cool beams and arches.
The staff who greeted us when were arrived were so fun and full of information and stories about the library. We heard that the library was built at the request and bequest of a woman from the town. Apparently, she had been betrothed but was swept off her feet by another. In an attempt to separate the young lovers, her parents sent her off to Europe. She returned with a love of the architecture she had seen in Germany. Unfortunately, she also returned with an illness which took her young life - but not before she decided to give the town $5,000 to build the library.
It's a neat place with some of the most beautiful shelves we've seen anywhere. It's a small place, to be sure, but it's an active part of the town. During our visit, we saw perhaps a dozen people come in for a book group and a young man come in for a DVD. There was a nice buzz of activity and chit chat among the staff and patrons. Library Land Score: 4.09.
We’d done it, we’d made it to 21 libraries - but was there time for one more? With the Peru Public Library just a few short minutes away, we decided the answer was yes! We pulled in behind a small red wooden building. Its paint was weathered and peeling in places. The streets around it were quiet.
In we went, not knowing what to expect. It’s essentially a one-room schoolhouse that now serves at the library. There we found Ruth Calaycay, the director, speaking with a member of the board. It’s clear that the Peru Library is a labor of love for all involved. It’s a curious and cluttered space that Ruth recognizes needs work - and work she does, applying for grants, but at the same time making the most of what she has.
Despite its challenges, there’s a lot to love about this library. There’s its quirky collection, its funky space, it assorted art and historical mementos, and its fun and frenetic director. But most of all is the way it exemplifies the idea of a library, a small space that is committed to making information and knowledge available in the community it serves. Library Land Score: 3.27.
Nine libraries in one day! And such diversity! Pulling away from Peru, and heading back east toward home, our minds were frankly numb. It was an amazing trip and one we were happy to have taken.
But wait, the week wasn’t yet over and there were two more Library Land visits to mention.
On Thursday, we were in Millis again, doing some work, preparing for an event and so Adam could return a Roomba he’d borrowed from their Library of Things. A short, but productive visit.
From Millis, we turned west toward might Worcester. We had been asked to be guest speakers at the Worcester Library Foundation Annual Meeting. What fun! We talked about the project, what we’ve seen and learned along the way, and what we’ve observed about what goes into a great library. It was a real honor to have this opportunity to meet with members of the Foundation, as well as Ed Augustus, the City Manager for Worcester, award winners and folks who support this library and its plans.
It was some week, that’s for sure - but there are more exciting ones on the horizon!