New Howland Library Director Looks Ahead

Changes coming inside and out

By Brian PJ Cronin

Big changes are underway at Beacon’s Howland Public Library.

Some are clearly visible from the outside, like the “CLOSED” sign that will remain up until the morning of Monday, Dec. 7. As part of a renovation to make the front entrance and the bathrooms comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act, crews are removing asbestos that was discovered inside the 66-year-old building. The library will shut down once again at some point before the end of the year to install the new hands-free “airlock” front entrance; bathrooms will remain closed until the entire project is completed.

But once the library reopens, patrons may notice changes on the inside as well. Most notably, a new face among the shelves. For the first time in 15 years, the library has a new director.

Amy Raff took over as the Howland’s director on Oct. 26 after serving as the director of the Woodstock Library for five years, and as the assistant director of the same library for 10 years before that.

Amy Raff (photo by Michelle Rivas/HPL)

Amy Raff (photo by Michelle Rivas/HPL)

“Woodstock is a really small town, so you have the luxury of having a certain free-and-breezy sense about rules and procedures because you know everyone’s first name,” said Raff. “Beacon is much larger. Double the staff, double the budget, triple the size of the building; the population is much larger and much more diverse. Beacon is — and I’m still an outsider for now — but it’s really vibrant and there’s a lot going on. Hopefully we’ll get to move here while we can still afford it!”

Raff lives in West Hurley, which is a bit of a commute. You can probably guess how she passes the time.

“My listening to audio books has increased now that I’m in the car for an hour and a half every day,” she said with a laugh. “I listen to fiction more than I read it. The audio book of Girl On The Train was riveting, and it had me sitting in my car in the driveway when I got home because I didn’t want to turn it off.”

Books have always been a love of Raff’s from her high school days, when she would work in the school’s library. Raff’s job was cutting out articles from newspapers and periodicals, and then organizing them in the vertical file. But it was by watching her high school librarian in action that Raff realized that libraries weren’t just about books: They were about people. “If you had a problem, you went to the library and the librarian fixed it for you by getting whatever information you needed,” she recalled. “I saw it as a helping profession.”

Raff’s high school experiences and her love of Richard Brautigan’s novel The Abortion — which centers around a fantastical library and the librarian who never leaves it — inspired her to get her master’s degree in library sciences and then go on to get a certificate in advanced public library administration. “That experience was very helpful,” she says of the certification process, “because, oh, the things they don’t teach you in library school!”

With a month as the Howland’s director under her belt, Raff said her favorite thing about her new position so far is the staff. “It makes all the difference,” she said. “Everyone’s really well trained and takes their job seriously. Everyone here knows that library work is important work. Most librarians are motivated out of a — well, I’m not going to say a higher calling — but it’s for some other reason than it’s just a job. That’s very obvious from the people who work here.”

Once the dust settles on the renovations, Raff and the Howland’s board will be able to move onto new projects, such as what to do with the space the library owns two doors down at 307 Main St. It’s already led Raff to think about the role that physical libraries will play in the 21st century as more and more patrons are taking advantage of the fact that they can now download or stream books, music and movies from the library’s collection online.

New Director Amy Raff outside the Howland Public Library. (Photo by B. Cronin)

New Director Amy Raff outside the Howland Public Library. (Photo by B. Cronin)

“I don’t think print books are dead,” she said. “People still check them out, they still come here for them, it’s still important to have a strong print collection. But instead of the library simply being a storehouse of knowledge, it can be a place that facilitates people creating their own knowledge, to have a place where people can come together or create things together. There’s a lot of talk in libraries about creating maker spaces with 3D printers, and low-tech stuff like knitting and fixing radios, and the movement of libraries to facilitate knowledge creation for the betterment of society.”

In the meantime, Raff says that patrons shouldn’t worry about accruing fines while the library is closed. Although the exterior book drop will remain open for those who wish to return books, any items checked out and normally due while the library is closed won’t need to be returned until it reopens. Items that patrons put on hold, normally only kept on the reserve shelf for seven business days before being put back into circulation, will be held throughout the renovations. “Essentially, time’s going to stop inside the library while we’re closed,” Raff explained.

Raff admitted that the closure would present some hardships for the community.

“It makes me nervous to close down the library for 10 days,” she said. “What are people going to do with themselves?”

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