South Kingstown Public Library Director Shirley Long will soon have her final week of work in the historic Peace Dale Library building she loves.
The building, 1057 Kingstown Road, Peace Dale, is a Richardsonian Romanesque stone building with high ceilings and large windows. It was built in 1891 as Hazard Memorial Hall, to honor the 90th anniversary of Rowland Gibson Hazard’s birth.
“I’ve been lucky to work in beautiful buildings,” she said. “Libraries are nice places – let’s face it.”
After 12 years in the job, Long will retire in two weeks. She maintains a positive outlook on the future of libraries, including the three she oversees: Peace Dale Library, Kingston Free Library and Robert Beverly Hale Library in Matunuck.
“Libraries are always evolving, developing and changing,” Long said.
She is the first to admit that technology has had a massive impact on the way library users engage in the library, but she sees the dramatic shift as a positive one.
“The way people use the library is constantly changing,” she said.
Long’s career began in 1974 as a reference reader’s adviser at Providence Public Library, a position that no longer exists. She helped library goers learn how the library worked and pointed them in the right direction in their search for information.
She spent 29 years at the Providence Public Library in various positions, mostly in adult services. Before she left for a brief hiatus, Long was the assistant director of central library services in Providence.
After 12 years in South Kingstown, she said she has “thought more than once that I should have made the change from Providence to here sooner than I did, because the world outside of Providence was really good and different.”
There were some differences. South Kingstown’s three libraries are owned and operated by the town, whereas Providence Public Library is a nonprofit corporation. Over the years she learned how to work though the town budget process, a process that could be challenging as she balanced the expectations of the Library Board of Trustees and town officials regarding policy issues.
Technology’s impact on libraries has meant the institution has needed to offer more services, keep up with the constant changes and get involved with social media. People continue to gravitate toward the library as a community space or for tutoring, though that does not translate into an increase in the circulation of books, Long said.
“People are using the library less, at least the walk-in patrons, although the use of e-books is going up, so people don’t need to come and use the library,” she said.
The state is starting to see a decline in the use of the shared book delivery system initiated in the early ’90s, which had tripled the amount of activity among libraries in Rhode Island. Last winter, the Board of Trustees held a series of focus groups, seeking ideas for how to get people to the library. They are now creating a survey and using different outreach methods to make the public aware of the library and its services.
As Google has become the go-to way to learn new information, Long has witnessed the decline of questions for reference librarians.
“They still ask the reference desk questions, but 40 years ago, people called the library for every single fact,” Long said.
For the six years she worked at the reference desk in Providence, she and her staff had a sheet taped to the desk with facts like the populations of Providence and Rhode Island. “Every single day somebody called up about the population – who knows why – but now you just Google it.”
She added that secretaries would call asking for grammatical information, spelling and phone numbers.
“People need or want something from you [as a librarian] and you have to provide it,” she said.
Years ago she received a box of candy from a caller whose question she answered.
One thing has not changed.
“The library is a place where everybody is welcome, where everybody feels free to be here and feel safe and comfortable,” Long said.
As she looks back, she feels her 42-year career went by quite quickly. After July 15, her last day, she said she will miss work, but is ready to spend time at her home in Hope Valley, doing housework, reading fiction or flipping through cookbooks and decorating books.
She thanked her staff for helping her reach her goals for the town’s libraries.
“Even though [the three libraries] have their own identity, it was important to think of them as the South Kingstown Public Library. We are here all together to serve the town residents,” she said.
She said the staff was successful in reaching cohesiveness among the town’s three locations.
Long said there will always be a place for libraries, and hopes their changing nature will be seen as healthy.