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Volume 41 Issue 18 • Sept. 8-14, 2011
now in our 41th season

Anchored in Nantucket

by Sarah Teach

Standing before the tremendous white pillars that support the roof at One India Street, you may feel a little smaller than usual.  But as soon as you step through the thick wooden entryway through which millions before you have treaded, you’ll find yourself within the breathtaking Nantucket Atheneum.  As you glide past shelves upon shelves of books, you’ll notice that the spellbinding collection is arranged quite comprehensibly.  And after winding up a wide, carpeted staircase garnished with unique 3-D artwork, you’ll come upon the renowned Great Hall.  Drink in the old-fashioned glass of the colossal windows surrounding you; the profound Great Hall lives up to its name. Although the Nantucket Atheneum is stunning, the structure itself is not the reason its annual visitors number over 200,000.  In an age of web access and smartphones, how has this conventional library maintained its relevance in our community?  Molly Anderson, Executive Director of the Nantucket Atheneum, was more than happy to indulge this investigation.

Most people on Nantucket know the Atheneum exists, but not everyone may have a firm grasp of its function.  Most New England towns have a “village green,” but Nantucket somehow missed this tradition!  Did you know that the Atheneum’s garden is the largest green space in downtown Nantucket?  You’re always welcome to read, rest, play, or just enjoy that grassy area surrounded by the white fence.  Anderson mentions the importance of having an informal place where people’s lives cross.  In addition to existing as a meeting place, the Atheneum is active all year long.  Anderson begins by explaining, “There are three sleeves to what we do at the Atheneum: our collection, our reference resources, and our programming.  First, our circulating collection includes the 56,000 books, DVDs, periodicals, and everything else that you see here on the shelves.  Supplementing our on-island collection with another 1.5 million items is our membership in the CLAMS network [Cape Libraries Automated Materials Sharing].  That way, if you need something that we cannot find at the Nantucket branch, we will have it shipped in for you free of charge.  It usually arrives very quickly, within a few days.”  Anderson goes on to explain that, functioning as the second sleeve, reference services are available both in the library and online.  At One India, the research librarian at the desk in the Great Hall is available to assist you in your quest for information on any topic.  Looking for Nantucket’s historic weekly newspapers?  The Atheneum’s microfilm collection contains original copies of every single issue that has been printed since 1816, when the Nantucket Gazette was first published.  Third and finally comes programming, about which Anderson says, “A great amount of effort is put into composing quality programming.  We have a mission statement that we as administrators are constantly referring as we make programming decisions.  In the evaluation process, we put on our ‘mission glasses’ and ask questions like, ‘Is this program culturally enriching?  Is it educational?’  And then, as programs progress, we consistently reassess their effectiveness in meeting the goals of the Atheneum.” A lso emphasized is collaboration with other organizations. Anderson explains, “We constantly monitor the programming of other organizations, because we don’t want to duplicate programs that are happening on the island.”

The effort invested in benefitting the community pays off; island life is continually enriched by the Atheneum’s programming.  Since its opening in 1834, the Great Hall has welcomed speakers the likes of Frederick Douglass, Henry David Thoreau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson.  When I ask Anderson which guests she has seen at the Atheneum whom she believes will be spoken about with such veneration, she reflects on a memory: “I’ll always remember the feeling in the Great Hall when Father Robert Drinan was standing on that stage.”  Anderson goes on to name some Geshke Lecture Series speakers.  “Susan Hockfield, the president of MIT, brought an amazing perspective on the importance of research in science.  Most recently, we were lucky to hear the global perspective of Dr. Joseph Nye, someone who really has his hand on the pulse of the world.  We look for what you might call ‘the thought leaders’ of the current time as we decide if someone’s message fits with the Atheneum’s mission.”

In keeping with its mission-oriented goal of promoting literacy across the board, the Atheneum sponsors the Literacy Volunteers of the Atheneum (LVA) program, which provides free English language learning for adults through weekly classes on Thursday evenings and one-on-one tutoring throughout the week.  Anyone who wishes to learn English can become part of the program free of charge.  For those interested in becoming a tutor, Anderson recommends, “Come and sit in on one of the Thursday night classes to get a feel for how the program is run.”  She offers her personal feelings surrounding LVA, “For me, it’s not just about learning the language.  It’s about learning American culture on an informal basis.”  Often, that learning progresses outside the classroom, too.  During a one-on-one session, a tutor might take a student to the grocery store or even the Whaling Museum to learn about Nantucket history.  Fortunately, this integrative approach has been bearing fruit. Beaming, Anderson exclaims, “A benchmark for the program came last fall when four of our learners became U.S. citizens!”

Even after you understand the complexity of the Atheneum’s programming, mysteries still remain.  Specifically, how is it possible that such a rich array of programming is available free of charge to participants?  Anderson’s optimistic poise remains intact as she talks about what may well be the toughest part of her job.  “Most public libraries in the U.S. get about 75-90% of their budget from their municipality and state.  We only get 37%.  Historically, that’s just the way it has been.”

Anderson does not even hint at bitterness about this fact, only realistic determination as she states, “In order to offer the programming that we do, and in order to keep the doors open and the lights on, we need to raise one million dollars every year.  That being said, the broad support of the community is necessary.”  After that first third comes from the town and state, the remaining two-thirds must be raised through private funding, such as used book sales and the Annual Cold Turkey Plunge, a “sponsor-a-swimmer” event that benefits the Weezie Library for Children. The major annual fundraiser is the Dance Festival, which was directed this summer by New York City Ballet principal dancer Benjamin Millepied.

With the sustained support of the community (that’s us!), we needn’t ever doubt whether the Atheneum can continue serving our community needs. “It’s with great pleasure that I see how much the building is used,” says Anderson with a reflective smile.  When you become aware of everything the Atheneum offers to the community throughout the entire year, you realize that it’s no wonder Nantucketers have felt a deep appreciation for this fixture since its early stages.  The Atheneum is not just a library; it is a cultural and educational center for the Nantucket community.  It’s a meeting place where thirsty minds spring to life, and a venue where creativity sprouts wings.  The giant wooden doors at One India have creaked open to welcome Nantucketers for almost 180 years; I have a feeling that they have many left to do the same


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