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Teaching an Old Library New Tricks

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.”


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.”


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News about Portsmouth from

Thursday, February 22, 2018 
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