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Teaching an Old Library New Tricks

Langdon_Library_1893HISTORY MATTERS

Here’s a hot winter tip. The Langdon Library is selling off a great collection of audio books and videotapes for $2 each. Where is the Langdon Library, you ask? Well, it’s right smack in the heart of historic Newington Village, five miles from downtown Portsmouth. What say? You didn’t know there was a downtown Newington? (Continued below)

 

Scott Campbell understands. As the only full-time employee (31 hours per week) of the diminutive town library, he’s heard it all before. His office is located under a stairway in the 1892 brick building with 18,000 items crammed into 1,620 square feet of usable space. This is the quintessential small town New England library. Newington has a population of just over 800 souls. But it is unique in that the town’s main street dead ends just a few yards from the library driveway. Once you reach the end of Nimble Hill Road, the only way out is back the way you came.

“I hear the words ‘quaint’ and ‘charming’ a lot,” Campbell says from visitors describing both the Langdon Library and Newington Village.

Another finger and he could tick off the buildings in the Old Town Center on one hand – old meetinghouse and cemetery, old library, old town hall (now housing the historical society), the old saltbox, the old school, and the old parsonage.

“We have no post office, no general store, no corner bar, and no coffee shop,” Campbell points out. “This is it. This is where people meet. I should probably get a pickle barrel. The social center of the town falls on two time-honored institutions – the public library and the dump, or as we call it, the ‘transfer station.’ People ‘doing the circuit’ on Saturday morning usually stop in.”

Langdon_LIbrary_Exterior

The five Newingtons

Newington, of course, also has the giant malls. Most visitors and locals see little else of this once flourishing farm community except store after store after store. We get a glimpse of the early colonial settlement at “Bloody Point,” now Hilton Point. Here the bustling Spaulding Turnpike crosses Little Bay en route to Great Bay. This protected natural estuary, New Hampshire’s “hidden inner coast” could not be more different than the populated commercial slice of town nearby. Across from the malls there is also the industrial corridor along the Piscataqua River, home to Sprague Energy and the Newington Power Station

Some say that Newington sold its soul to the commercial district in exchange for a low tax rate. But the real shock came in 1951 when the federal government swallowed 4,000 acres of the town, buying land or taking it by eminent domain to build a two-mile runway. Pease Air force Base survived 40 years, leaving behind a toxic dump site requiring a costly federal clean-up. Today the Pease International Tradeport there is a thriving industrial zone. The federal air base cut the Old Town Center off from the planet and, now that the thunderous jet bombers are gone, the locals seem to relish their isolation.

Somehow the village survived, trapped in space and time. The parsonage dates to 1699 and the church to 1712, making it the oldest operating Congregational meetinghouse in the country. The funds for the Langdon Library came largely from Woodbury Langdon, a descendent of Gov. John Langdon whose mansion still stands in the center of Portsmouth. This same philanthropist also saved the Portsmouth Historical Society (aka the John Paul Jones House) from destruction in 1920. Woodbury Langdon supplemented the funds raised by the city for the Newington library, and then he and his wife left a considerable bequest to keep the doors open.

LANGDON LIRBARY CONTINUED


The Book Conceirge

“We’re pretty much full,” Campbell says of his crowded kingdom. If a new book comes in, something has to go out. The ongoing book, video, and tape sale in the tiny vestibule is a matter of necessity. Books are lined all around the librarian’s tiny station in the front room and arranged tightly on stacks in the back room. The upstairs is piled with books including Woodbury Langdon’s original collection.

Campbell says the library had over 400 books on audio tape, but since most everyone in town has stopped using cassette players, he has de-accessioned three-quarters of the collection.

“You can get books anywhere these days,” Campbell says. “Here people are also getting recommendations from experts.”

He functions more like a hotel concierge than a traditional librarian. He sees himself as a consultant, weeding through the latest books and media. The trick, he explains, is to find the perfect balance of entertaining and educational resources for his 800 targeted customers. He polls them on their interests and needs. His part-time staff (the library is closed Sunday and Monday) engages library patrons in conversation. They listen and they compare notes.

“We tend to do a lot of steering,” Campbell says. “When people come in the door, I know their name, I know their library card number by heart, and I know exactly why they’re here.”

Langdon_Library_director_Scott_campbell

The Third Place

The Langdon Library looks the same on the outside as it does in the dedication photos from 1893. So does the village. If public libraries are obsolete, as some critics claim, then this one-horse dead-end town center should be high on the endangered list. But indoors, the place is adapting at top speed. And this seems to be the case across New England where small libraries are evolving as fast as American culture, technology, town budgets, and their inventive staffs will allow.

You can’t really train for a job like Scott’s because it changes day to day. Hundreds of pictures on the library’s Web site show a wide range of activities – kids playing with a large scary snake and a cute opossum, handling lobsters, and meeting a live hawk. Kids play Guitar Hero and eat pizza right in the main room of the library. Wine glasses line the shelves during a celebration. Locals look at the night sky through powerful telescopes in an astronomy club. People play with giant chess pieces on the library lawn.

“I drive by every day,” one Newington woman says as she hunts through the Local Authors shelf just inside the door, “and if there are cars, I come in to see what’s going on.”

It’s the theory of the Third Place, Campbell says, referring to a popular concept of community planning. People go to work or school, people go home, and then they like to come together with friends and neighbors. The Third Place has been compared to a community living room.  What better place to gather, Campbell says, than a public building that gives out free stuff?

“I’m committed to being relevant,” he says. “I simply refuse to be left behind.”

LANGDON LIRBARY CONTINUED BELOW


langdon_library_around_1893

 

Technology Meets Community

Campbell came to Newington via a circuitous route. As a University of New Hampshire English major (class of ’90), he worked for three years in the cavernous Dimond Library shelving books. He helped launch the hi-tech E-Coast group back in the early days of the Internet. Campbell worked at a music store and a marketing research firm, but both companies went Chapter 11. (“It wasn’t my fault,” Campbell adds.) He eventually found himself driving a DHL delivery truck – mostly for the exercise, he jokes. He was delivering a computer to the historic Rice Library in Kittery Point when he stumbled onto a part time library job. When the Newington directorship came up in 2007, he signed on. The day he started at Langdon Library, he notes, there was no budget for technology. That quickly changed.

“It’s my mission to drag this library kicking and screaming into the 21st century,” Campbell says. He built the library Web site himself (langdonlibrary.org) and sends out a sharply designed and highly informative newsletter to patrons and the press. The library has its own Facebook page and Campbell has been known to Tweet the whole town when fresh books and DVDs arrive. If he doesn’t think a hot new book is worth buying, he’s not afraid to tell his readers why.

As a tech-savvy librarian, Campbell has no fear of the digital revolution. He offers patrons access to e-readers and expects to see the number of books borrowed electronically to double in 2012. When a library visitor proposed a new e-book by Kittery writer Rodman Philbrick, Campbell whipped out his Kindle and placed an instant order. Sixty seconds later, the book was available for loan to 800 Newington patrons.

Traffic is up, services are expanding, and the future for small libraries, Campbell says, is bright and exciting. That’s the message he will present at the Newington town budget hearing next month.

“You tell me what you want this place to be,” Campbell plans to tell his tight little new Hampshire community, “and that’s what it will become.”

Photos courtesy Langdon Library

Copyright © 2012 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s history column appears in the Portsmouth Herald every other Monday and exclusively online at his independent Web site SeacoastNH.com. Robinson is the author of America’s Privateer: Lynx and the War of 1812. His new e-book novella, Kill All the Vampire Writers, is available on Amazon.com.

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