Aquinnah library

The oldest public building, the little red schoolhouse was originally built in 1844, but has seen many changes since those days.

Most of the time the Aquinnah Public Library lies dormant. Activity in the center of Aquinnah takes place at the town hall, not at the little red schoolhouse building across the street.

The library is open just three days a week, for a grand total of 17 hours. Since its establishment in 1901, it has been relocated to the town hall building, moved back to the schoolhouse, refurbished, moved back to town hall, flooded, returned to the schoolhouse, seen the addition of a front porch (while it was again in the town hall), and refurbished once again. It is the oldest public building in Aquinnah; the schoolhouse was originally built in 1844.

aquinnah public library sign
Its contents have been painstakingly catalogued (six books were checked out its first day in 1929; in 1934 the library had a circulation of 2,593) and curiously overlooked. According to a 1981 Gazette article, “None of the town or library board officials reached in Gay Head this week knows how many books the collection contains.” The collection has since been indexed and digitized and will soon be added to the Cape Libraries Automated Materials Sharing network, allowing it to exchange content with all participating libraries, including the five others on-Island. The CLAMS project was funded by the Friends of the Aquinnah Public Library and the Aquinnah Gay Head Community Association.

But what stands out about the Aquinnah library is neither its history of moving nor its collection (now 8,100 books strong, plus millions more to come through CLAMS). Visiting the cheery, brightly-lit little space with its gleaming wood floors, comfy reading chairs and colorful rugs is a bit like visiting a beloved relative’s home. There is history here — the hooks from the old school cloakroom are still on the wall — and it feels cozy.

“We’re sort of like a community gathering place and a reading room combined,” head librarian Cathy Thompson said. On a recent Tuesday afternoon, a flamenco guitar concert, part of the library’s summer programs series, took place on the front porch while children inside wrote summer reading lists and adults flipped through the magazine selection. Barbara Lampson, head of the children’s programs, joked with the younger readers, nearly all of whom were regular visitors, while Rosa Parker manned the check-out desk. Penny Huff, the third part-time employee was absent. A sheepish patron appeared at the desk to say a DVD had gotten stuck in the family computer. Ms. Thompson brushed off the concern: “No worries, no fines — we know where it is.”

With all the bustle of activity, one thing the Aquinnah library is not is quiet. But, as the 1981 Gazette piece put it, “no one seems to mind.”

“The days of the ‘shush’ library are over,” Ms. Thompson said on Tuesday.

Claus Smith Rodeo Purves-Langer books Clovis Smith

Claus Smith Rodeo Purves-Langer books Clovis Smith

Ms. Thompson took over as library director three summers ago. For nearly 20 years, however, she was the director of the Chilmark library. She’s also spent time working for a considerably larger library in Illinois — that library had an annual budget of $1 million, whereas Aquinnah’s budget is $106,000. Still, that sum is a “good amount for a tiny library,” Ms. Thompson said. One-fifth of the budget is spent on new materials. Ms. Thompson peruses Publishers Weekly, The New York Times Book Review and professional librarian magazines regularly to keep the collection well-stocked.

“You don’t want to overwhelm with books,” she noted. “You want each title to be a little gem.”

“It’s got everything you want,” Aquinnah resident John Reveruzzi said as he checked out two mysteries.

Circulation jumped over 20 per cent from fiscal years 2011 to 2012, with 11,936 items moving through the system.

“In the winter, we come all the time — pretty much every day they’re open,” said Molly Purves, also of Aquinnah, while son Rodeo Purves-Langer, 5, looked over a book with Clyde Smith, 7. “The people are great . . . it’s great company. They work really hard at the programs.”

The summer programs feature a speaker series at town hall, largely showcasing local talent from both the seasonal and year-round communities, and are timed so that attendees can catch sunset at the cliffs afterward. Ms. Thompson is firmly committed to having events throughout the year, as well as creating activities that involve the whole family.

“It’s fun to think of cozy, wintry things to do,” she said. Movie nights (bring your own blanket) are especially popular during the long gray months, but then, the simple act of being open makes the library a popular place.

“We’ve been patrons for years and years and years,” said Aquinnah resident Noni Smith, as boys Clyde, Claus, 4 and Clovis, 1, perused the children’s section and worked at the craft table. “We live right across the way . . . my first grew up here, pretty much.”

As the Smith boys began to attend school in Chilmark, the family spent more time at the library there. But they always return to their home base.

“I just love it,” Mrs. Smith said. “It holds so many memories . . . it was great then and it’s great now.”

The Aquinnah Public Library is open Tuesday and Thursday from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Please call 508-645-2314 or e-mailaquilib@vineyard.net for more information about programs.

By Ivy Ashe