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New Minot Sleeper Librarian looks to the future

Newly appointed Minot Sleeper Library Director Sharon Warga (right) with veteran local Librarian Cindy Westfall, Assistant Director Deborah Thouin, and summer student intern Sarah Skiffington. (Marcia Morris) (click for larger version)
July 20, 2011
BRISTOL—It's not your grandmother's library.

While the Minot Sleeper Library in Bristol is indeed an historic treasure, deeply rooted in the rich legacy of philanthropy and community that is the hallmark of small town life here in New Hampshire, it is no relic of the past.

It was the first dedicated library building ever built in the Lakes Region, and is listed as a landmark on the National Register of Historic Buildings. But, with a dynamic, young new librarian and plans for expansion to meet the growing demands on the institution at the heart of the downtown, the library is rapidly evolving to adapt to the changing needs of a whole new generation of readers. And it seems to be working.

Hundreds of kids and their parents are flocking to the summer reading program this year, held at the Tapply Thompson Community Center because the library simply cannot accommodate all the children who are enthusiastic about reading books. That is good news in this "virtual" world, where all too often, kids are in danger of spending more "screen time" with a multitude of gadgets and electronic devices than interacting with their parents and peers.

The theme of the summer reading program this year is "One World, Many Stories" — a theme echoed in similar programs in town libraries all across the nation. Kids are learning about folktales from cultures and countries around the world. Meanwhile, they carefully tally their reading minutes, competing for distinction as a "frequent reader." Anyone who reaches five hours of summer reading is awarded a certificate, and a book is donated to the Minot Sleeper Library in their name. The top readers will be given a handsome T-shirt as a prize.

Participants in the teen reading program are competing for an MP3 player, so they can download audio books and music from the library's brand new, free electronic collection. You can't get more new-fangled than that!

But Library Director Sharon Warga can tell you, if you think the "old-fashioned" book is out of date for these young people, you haven't been to story-time at the Minot Sleeper Library lately. On a recent Friday morning, more than 35 young children and 22 parents gathered in the tiny basement children's alcove for the popular weekly story-time, where kids enjoy each other's company, a good book, and a craft activity to bring the story to life.

Warga began her new position at the Minot Sleeper Library in February. She says that she thinks of the local library as the "glue that holds the community together," providing a place for people to meet, exchange ideas, get their questions answered, and gain access to the latest in information technology. The former academic librarian, with more than 10 years of experience at Yale University, UNH Law Library and Southern Connecticut State University, is well versed in the very latest information technologies, and convinced of the need to provide expanded access to free computer services for everything from job searches to genealogy research. (The library is now offering free access to ancestry.com.)

Warga says demands for free access to computers at the library are growing all the time, and she makes it a point to be available to help patrons navigate the Internet for whatever needs they might have. The library is often crowded with people who take advantage of the free wireless Internet, parents working on laptops while their children browse the extensive children's collection, or spread out on the floor to play. She says one of the things the library staff is looking forward to most about a new expanded facility is the opportunity to have a dedicated children's room, where kids are safe, secure, and separated from other functions of the library while they enjoy the many programs offered especially for them.

Warga is very enthusiastic about her new position, and says she loves it here in Bristol.

"There is such a strong sense of community here," says Warga. "From day one, I had people coming in and welcoming me to town. Everyone was just so friendly and supportive. In a small town like this, people go above and beyond to get to know you and help you out."

She says she has been most surprised by just how busy the library is here in Bristol.

"For such a tiny building, you can't believe how much goes on here every day," said Warga. "Circulation statistics continue to climb dramatically. Library use is way up, even from this time last year."

While more and more people are using the new, free "downloadable" online book service direct from their computers at home, still more enjoy coming to the library to browse the collection and choose a "real book" in the old fashioned way. Most importantly, they like to take advantage of the social dimension of gathering together with others to enjoy reading the same book in the various monthly discussion groups, and sometimes having the opportunity to meet local authors in person. There is no substitute for that.

While Warga is preparing to offer classes to help teach people how to access information using their home computers and the Minot Sleeper's free online system, she is most excited about the opportunity to expand offerings for children and young adults learning to love to read at the library.

"The library is one of the most important institutions in any small town," says Warga. "We are here to help in any way we can to help people get questions answered and expand their free access to information. We are happy to help. Everyone is welcome here."

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