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Coming home to the library, in Hamburg and elsewhere

Stand in the newly reopened Hamburg Public Library and check out patrons walking through the door for the first time as they look around at the circular two-story addition. Then watch their jaws drop in amazement.

The huge skylight and 10 large windows bring the light indoors during the daytime.

And at night, people on the street look through windows and see inside the abstract mural that community members made.

The artwork, video gaming area and color in the carpeting and on the walls are hints that this not your mother’s, and maybe not even your older sister’s, library.

And here’s a news flash: You don’t have to whisper in the library anymore.

“Years ago, you were supposed to keep your mouth shut and not bring any food,” Hamburg Library Director Jack Edson said.

Libraries were only about books. Today they are coffee shops and museums, cafes and community centers, homework centers and movie theaters, paint studios and gardens.

“Books will always be our product,” said Mary Jean Jakubowski, library director for Buffalo & Erie County Public Library, but she added: “We are not only about the books.”

And not just in Hamburg.

“We’re evolving and transforming just as our communities are evolving and transforming,” said Courtney Young, president of the American Library Association.

Libraries have succeeded in the past, and will have a strong future, by continuing to be the place where everyone is welcome to access and consume information, or just to connect with others, she said.

“You can get access to nearly everything you want or need in print or electronically,” Young said, adding, “and you get someone who can help you get it.”

That means offering Wi-Fi and computer terminals, job searching, tutoring and meeting spaces, as well as books and research materials, and continuing to change as society changes.

It seems to be working. More than 92 million attended programs in the nation’s libraries in 2012, a jump of 54 percent over 10 years, according to a report by the American Library Association.

While Americans’ lives have changed, many still rely on the library. A Pew Research Center poll found that 52 percent of Americans believe people do not need public libraries as much as they used to because they can find most information on their own. And yet the same poll found that 90 percent said if their library closed, their community would be affected.

The Ferguson Municipal Public Library in Ferguson, Mo., knew that. When schools and other organizations closed in the chaos that erupted after the grand jury there did not indict the police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown, the library remained open. Its messages on Twitter said it was offering “Wi-Fi, water, rest, knowledge. We are here for you.” The library used a hashtag that could sum up any library’s mission: “#whatlibrariesdo.”

Community centers

Today in the Buffalo area, you can get coffee at the Audubon and Lancaster libraries, the Central Library’s Fables Cafe is open Monday through Saturday for breakfast, sandwiches and pastries, and a cafe will be opening soon in Hamburg’s library.

“Libraries are integral parts of their community. They are the community center,” Jakubowski said. “People are looking to us to provide more and more variety and greater frequency in types of programming.”

And as libraries try to provide greater variety, it appears the days of retrenchment may be over.

The 2005 budget crisis was gut-wrenching for libraries, a time when the Erie County system shrunk from 52 to 37 branches.

But those libraries that survived are looking forward. The Williamsville branch was supposed to close, but the town and later volunteer fundraising helped keep it open. The Audubon branch has talked of expanding, and West Seneca is planning an estimated $2.7 million addition. The scope depends on how successful the library is in winning state construction grants, but Library Director Kathy Goodrich is hoping there will be enough to build a front porch where visitors can go outside and read.

Part of Hamburg’s funding came from more than $700,000 in state grants. The town also expects the library to raise $400,000 in donations. The library has raised about $60,000, and fundraising efforts continue, said Library Board President Katie Sacco.

Hamburg’s renovation

Hamburg’s $3.6 million addition was several years in the planning, and the library was closed for several months before it reopened in April to rave reviews.

“It was worth waiting for,” said Sheila Benoit of Evans, who said she was “desperate” when it was closed. “I couldn’t envision what they were going to do.”

The addition got its start when the library fixed the exterior ramp that was added to the building in the 1990s to increase accessibility. It was decided to put the ramp inside the building, out of the elements. The new ramp now winds around the curved wall.

A large meeting room, restrooms and space for a cafe, which will be operated by Simply Gourmet, were added. A fireplace on the original floor with cozy chairs around it will make another good reading nook. There also is plenty of room in the original 1966 library building for quiet spaces.

“Whenever you make it accessible for one group, the whole society benefits,” Edson said.

The community mural overseen by Hallwalls co-founder Charles Clough, Clufffalo:Hamburg, also brings colorful art to the neighborhood. It is part of Albright-Knox Art Gallery’s Public Art Initiative and is in the gallery’s permanent collection. Paul Gauguin’s painting, “Where Do We Come From What Are We? Where Are We Going?” was the inspiration for the artwork.

Digital explosion

Libraries have been asking some of those same questions, in light of the digital media explosion.

“People really recognize the public library is one of those lasting democratic institutions in the community. I think that means a lot,” said Young, of the American Library Association. “Everyone is welcome there.”

Libraries listen to their communities, and some lend baking pans, knitting needles and even tools, she said.

“We also are providing services that are 24-7, 365. You don’t have to come into a building,” Jakubowski said.

At the same time, brick and mortar libraries provide meeting places, and space for exhibits of all kinds. Jakubowski calls them the “community living room,” the place to come and participate in a program, hear an author speak or a local individual discuss a field of interest. Or tend to a community garden, like Hamburg is planning behind its library.

“The biggest thing we compete against is what people do in their free time. We know people are so busy these days,” Jakubowski said.