The Aquinnah Public Library sports a powerful literary and learning engine inside its homespun, 19th century exterior. The former little red schoolhouse, built in 1827 on State Road just past the town hall, houses more than 7,900 books and almost 1,700 audio and DVD materials. Over the past four years, the tiny library, less than 1,000 square feet, has earned national and state honors.
In 2005 and again in 2006, Aquinnah joined Chilmark, Vineyard Haven and Edgartown as Island communities with nationally top-ranked libraries as judged by Hennen’s American Public Library Rating, the national rating standard for library quality. The 2007 numbers are not available yet.
The Hennen system ranks 9,027 U.S. libraries by 15 criteria. Libraries are ranked by year-round community population. Aquinnah is ranked with community populations of under 1,000.
In 2006, the Hennen system ranked Aquinnah sixth nationally in its population category and the library is ranked second by the state behind Weston town library among 368 libraries. This continues a tradition that began in 1936 when the library was placed on a state honor list for the number of books circulated in proportion to the town’s population.
Library director Jennifer Christy credits an active board of library trustees, the Community Preservation Committee, and fund-raising efforts of the Friends of the Public Library with helping to expand the library’s size and reach — including a new porch and entrance completed in 2007 which doubles as an event and fund-raising venue.
Ms. Christy came to the library as director in 2005 after working at the Chilmark Free Public Library and teaching art at the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School.
“The [Aquinnah] library is certainly a cultural center of our town, but it’s also the community center, a central gathering place,” she said in a phone interview last week.
Usage figures show that Aquinnah has never loved its library more.
Over the past three years circulation is up 60 per cent and the library has more than doubled its patronage to 991 patrons in a town with 354 year-round residents.
Aquinnah circulated 10,222 items last year, evenly balanced between books and electronics; the figure includes a tally for each use of the library’s wireless Internet.
Ms. Christy, library associate Michelle Laurie, and longtime library assistant Natalie Francis are hopping to keep up with demand. They and friends of the library have donated the time necessary to meet demand.
At annual town meeting on May 13, voters will be asked to fund 12 additional hours for an assistant and eight additional hours for a circulation technician to keep up.
“Expanding our staff is necessary given the workload,” said Nancy Delaney, chairman of the board of trustees. “We operate a lot on volunteer power but there’s a limit, particularly for the online and technical aspects.”
Weekly classes, from kids programs to cutting edge culture, are now on a first-come, first-served basis.
During a recent budget review meeting, Ms. Christy and selectmen looked for new ways to increase library funding in a flat budget year. Camille Rose noted ruefully, “We have a Rolls Royce library and a Ford budget.”
In the final analysis, selectmen advised Ms. Christy to “see what the voters think,” as selectman Jim Newman put it.
The library is open three days a week, Tuesday and Thursday afternoons and all day on Saturday, a total of 16 hours.
There is a timeless quality to the little library, its neat, white wooden shelves and three computer terminals arranged under a blackboard on which generations of Islanders practiced their sums and honed their writing skills.
“Yeah, it looks quaint,” said Mr. Newman who happened by at the Aquinnah library — which was, from its establishment in 1901 until it was 1998, called the Gay Head Public Library. “But I’ll tell you what. Read the New York Times Book Review or about some important museum exhibit, and the book or the exhibit information will be there in our library.”