A small town library with a big reach

  • Aisilyn Givens is the new librarian for the James E. Nichols Library in Center Harbor, which is unique in that anyone can be a member, regardless of where they live. Courtesy

  • Though she earned her degree in Boston, Aisilyn Givens, the new librarian at the James E. Nichols Library in Center Harbor, said she feels most at home in a small town. —Courtesy

The Laconia Daily Sun
Published: 1/13/2022 11:14:35 AM
Modified: 1/13/2022 11:13:48 AM

It’s a one-room library with 15,000 physical books, DVDs and magazines, nestled next to town hall and the police and fire stations on Main Street, and it is Aisilyn Givens’ cherished domain.

Five days a week the town’s new librarian, age 24, drives an hour and 10 minutes from Lebanon, Maine, to work at a small-town library much like the one in Nottingham, NH, where she grew up. It’s a labor of love.

“I grew up in a library,” said Givens, who specialized in archives and special collections management in her master’s program in library science at Simmons College in Boston. “Growing up, we didn’t have Wi-Fi or the internet so we camped out at the library. It’s where we went.”

Early immersion also cultivated a lifelong love of books. An avid reader, “I like to brag I had a college reading level when I was in sixth grade. It was my claim to fame.”

She is an unusual person running an out-of-the-ordinary library. In the age of digital information available 24-7 at everyone’s fingertips, the James E. Nichols Library is free and open to anyone who wants to become a member, regardless of whether they live here or just drive through this lakeside hamlet, with a year-round population of 1,100 that swells much higher during summer. The library currently has roughly 1,200 members.

Thanks to Nichols, a Center Harbor native who lived from 1845 to 1914 and became wealthy as a merchant in New York City, the classical-style building with columns was erected in 1907, and forever honors its benefactor’s wishes that it be free and available to anyone. In her first month as director, Givens memorized the names of 30 to 40 regulars who live in town. Most of the patrons live in Center Harbor, but some come from Meredith, Moultonborough, Tuftonboro, Holderness, Ashland, Plymouth and Tamworth – or the world beyond.

One of its appeals is that it is a comfortable, parlor-like oasis in an increasingly impersonal and anonymous world. The circulation desk sits in the middle. A vaulted ceiling makes the enclosure feel airy. A children’s nook, a particular focus of Nichols, offers a place for reading and quiet play.

But like libraries everywhere, the collection isn’t limited by shelf space. Online services open to members who enter their library card number include Hoopla and Canopy, which allow movies, including documentaries, classics, independent and foreign films, and children’s educational programming or entertainment, to be streamed. Books are still ordered by inter-library loan, but they can also be read online. A federal grant of roughly $1,000 through the American Rescue Plan funds enabled the library to install air purifiers, and when weather permits during library hours, the doors are open.

“We didn’t see a drop in visitation,” said Givens, who received a warm, small-town welcome when she arrived last month. “It was amazing. People came in to see me and say hi, even if they weren’t taking anything out.”

“I don’t have much experience with city libraries,” said Givens. “I’ve never lived in a city. I’m more of a small-town gal. But I think we’re not as daunting to go into. Someone off the street who has never been in a library before is more likely to walk into a small one with less people and less to look at. Some of it is over-stimulating. For me, the way I grew up, it’s comforting, quiet and relaxing, one of the only places you can walk into today where you’re not expected to pay.”

Like libraries everywhere, the James E. Nichols Library pivoted during the pandemic, offering online ordering and curbside delivery. “With COVID, we’ve geared more to becoming information specialists, but it’s created a cool dynamic to the job,” Givens said. Librarians are stewards of information, records and history, she said, which “has so much impact for people seeking it – the why’s, the when’s and the how’s. We’ve been trained in research to help people.”

That includes the ability to separate sound information from misinformation and disinformation, which can circulate like distraction confetti online. “We help people find things that are true and reliable. We are that buffer, that aid for people trying to find factual information to use,” said Givens. Trained librarians can serve as firewalls between falsehoods and hearsay, and facts and legitimate sources.

As digital experience expands, the role of libraries and librarians continues to evolve, Givens said. “How do we make it so people can find what they’re looking for easier and faster? How do we bring more people in? Do we offer more digital services or in-person events? We do want people to come into the library.”

Givens said she would like more collaborations between the library and local schools, which can be a challenge in a cooperative school district. She would like to start internship programs with Plymouth State University and secondary schools to introduce more young people to library science. “If we could offer that for students in the northern part of the state, it would be a great experience for people getting into this field.”

One of her favorite aspects of the job is assisting people. “These people have needs and need someone to help them. It’s very much a public service, and that’s important to me.”

The library is strongly supported by the town, she said, and that will help going forward. “There are people who love this library and have been in this town for decades and adore this place. It’s welcoming,” Givens said.

Caroline Schad, who moved here three years ago, said, “It’s just a great little library, with lovely people who work there. It’s been around such a long time. It’s got such a community feel.”

“My kids grew up in that library,” said Laura Curran, who runs the Village Pre-School at Center Harbor Congregational Church, and has lived here for 21 years. “They have a great selection and have always been great about getting things for you. We’re super excited to have Aisilyn there, to see her adding to the collection and updating books. In the short time that she’s been there, she’s already made great additions.”

These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.

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