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Patti Arkwright, left, the library director of the Maury Loontjens Memorial Library in Narragansett and Laurie Kelly, the chairperson of the library's board of trustees.

NARRAGANSETT, R.I. — At the Maury Loontjens Memorial Library, the philosophy among staff is all about helping people navigate information increasingly found beyond the books on its shelves.

Although this repository of printed, online and human-supplied information has been caught in a crossfire of opposing political priorities, the library and its staff’s dedication were ranked by Reader’s Digest — the iconic American general interest magazine — as a “nicest place in America” finalist among 50 others culled from 1,100 entries.

“We concentrate on making the patrons feel welcome and help with whatever they need,” said Patti Arkwright, library director who launched her career there 30 years ago. “Part of our philosophy is to give people options and help them in whatever way we can.”

The recognition, carrying the subtitle “Staying Positive Against All Odds,” came amid staff and supporters’ fights to push back against town officials’ criticisms, broken promises and budget cuts in the last two years, according to Arkwright and Laurie Kelly, chairwoman of the library’s Board of Trustees.

The  future of the library’s physical space has become the most sharply divisive issue in town — with some seeking a bigger and better facility and others wanting a scaled-down version — with additional debate over library services and money it takes to offer them.

However, the staff is the face of what’s inside and they are a font of dedication and friendliness, said Arkwright and Kelly, that captured Readers Digest editors.

“Narragansett’s public library is so unassuming that you might drive right by it if you didn’t know what you were looking for,” editors of Reader’s Digest wrote about the nomination by Suzan Amoruso, a member of Narragansett’s Friends of the Library.

“But to the 15,000 people who make this seaside town their home, the library is where the knitting club meets, high schoolers hunker with tutors, preschoolers sit wide-eyed at story time—and where it’s impossible to miss how gracious the staff is in the face of an existential threat,” they wrote.

“Recently the town council voted to slash the facility’s budget in half and put on hold plans for a much-needed new building for the 10,000 people who visit a month. The library may lose its eligibility for additional state funding, putting…staffers’ jobs in jeopardy,” the editors explained to a nationwide audience.

“The fight has gotten ugly at times, with heated arguments at town council meetings,” they observed.

“Through it all, the librarians have stayed above the fray, continuing to smile, making the library an oasis of civility even as a battle rages around it,” they said about this library that also honors with his name on the building the late town council member and town manager Maurice J. “Maury” Loontjens, who died 13 years ago.

The magazine noted that finalists, like Narragansett’s library, were places where neighbors are friends, strangers are welcome and random acts of kindness are the norm, all frequent occurrences in this service that Loontjen’s prized, according to his widow, Virginia, who still lives in town.

Those kindnesses show suddenly, said Arkwright and Kelly. People bring in donuts, cookies and candy — some dessert comfort food — for the staff who bob up and down amid the cascading waves of repercussions from town leaders, they said.

While the library did not win the top recognition, being a finalist — the only choice made for Rhode Island — proves the library’s course is sound and steady, Arkwright and Kelly said, adding that it also came in fourth place among the 50 finalists for this crowd-sourcing recognition based on any votes cast on Reader’s Digest’s website.

Importance of a Library

In a 2013 report, the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project found that while many library patrons felt that print books remain important, they wanted to see libraries’ digital services expand.

The availability of free computers and internet access now rivals book lending and reference expertise as a vital service of libraries, the report said.

In its national survey of Americans ages 16 and older:

  • 91 percent of Americans ages 16 and older said public libraries are important to their communities.
  • 80 percent of Americans said borrowing books is a “very important” service libraries provide.
  • 80 percent said reference librarians are a “very important” service of libraries.
  • 77 percent said free access to computers and the internet is a “very important” service of libraries.
  • 76 percent said libraries are important to them and their families. And libraries are touchpoints in their communities for the vast majority of Americans.

Compared to whites, African-Americans and Hispanics, according to the study, find libraries are important to them and their families and important to their communities to access the internet at the library.

They also reported that internet access is a very important service libraries provide, especially to use library internet access to hunt/apply for jobs, and to visit libraries just to sit and read or study.

For almost all of the major library resources, African-Americans and Hispanics are significantly more likely than whites to consider them “very important” to the community. That includes: reference librarians, free access to computers/internet, quiet study spaces, research resources, jobs and careers resources, free events, and free meeting spaces.

Trying to Fulfill Community Needs

Like others across the country, the Maury Loontjens Memorial Library is transforming in the digital age from a book and periodical warehouse to a community center. As in all libraries across the state, anyone is welcome to come to discover life beyond information found only on paper.

Arkwright said that beyond the usual stacks found in libraries, it offers hotspots for free to take home to connect to the internet, ebooks for reading online and on-the-go, computers for those who cannot afford one at home, yet need to apply for food stamps or complete an online job application.

It has CDs, movies and ebooks by the thousands to complement its 68,000 hard-bound collection of adult and children’s books. It provides access to online self-improvement classes on a variety of topics, including dog grooming, full digital subscriptions to state and national news media and databases for serious research on financial, medical and other critical issues, Arkwright explained.

She noted that its reference desk, not only for that hard-to-find book or journal publications online or in print, has a technologist skilled in assisting others with their phones, computers or tablets, whether a simple repair, downloading a program and finding some needed critical app.

And it also sponsors various programs that draw people for book clubs, story time reading for children, movie afternoons and evenings and genealogy discussions, she said.

It serves about 10,000 people — often repeat visitors — walking monthly through its Kingstown Road doors in the heart of The Pier section. It has about 7,000 active library cards issued. Five full-time workers, 18 part-time individuals and volunteers are staff the library, Arkwright said.

“In this day and age, we have so much to offer,” she said, looking back to 1990 when she joined the library staff. “We really only had books to offer. That was the focus.

“Now we have everything to offer,” she added, “and I think that’s why they say libraries are communities. They offer a little bit of everything.

“The bottom line is that people like options and there’s not one solution to everyone’s problem,” she said, pointing out that some people want a hard-bound book in their hands while other prefer the digital version.

Providing those options, however, costs money, and there is where the controversy lies.

The Narragansett Town Council drew the ire of library supporters when it chose to make a $400,000 cut in funds for operations this year and now, as a result, the library also faces a $186,000 reduction in state aid for its $841,000 budget.

Town Council President Matthew Mannix and Town Manager James Tierney declined to comment on the library’s recognition and the ongoing controversy. When the funding cut was made last June, Mannix said he and other council members supporting the move felt that the library should be required to spend down some of its reserve fund, which stood at $686,000 at the time.

Virginia Loontjens, wife of the late town council member and town manager to whom the library is dedicated, said he would disapprove today of the council’s actions.

“He loved libraries and he would do anything for them. He would be shocked to see the behavior of the council,” she said.

Library officials now need now to tap into reserve funds, once set aside for expansion plans. That draw down will leave around $200,000 for expansion expenses, said Arkwright, but adding that a current find drive – boosted in part by the council’s public approach toward the library —  promises to help bring in a needed $1 million to help with capital expenses, including a new building for its growing services.

Its most valuable resource, though, is the staff who commit time and energy to helping people navigate what they need in an increasing digital world in which some people are shut out, said both Kelly and Arkwright.

“All these things we offer are now part of everyone’s daily life, but not everyone can afford it, not everybody understands technology and digital access, and libraries are there to help them,” said Arkwright.

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