Reading, writing and robots – Oh my!



Local libraries have a lot to offer

When Ginny Figlia started working at the Howland Library in Beacon 26 years ago, there wasn't such a thing as "youth programming." "I think once every few weeks someone came in and did a story time," she says. "But that was it."

Fast-forward to the Howland today, where Figlia is the Head of Youth Services. There's still story time, but now it takes place a few times a week for ages as young as a few weeks old and includes crafts, songs, and socializing. Older kids are building with Legos, learning how to code, wiring robotics, printing their own 'zines, and voluntarily tackling complicated math problems.

The place is busier than ever.

Figlia admits that part of the library's increasing popularity is a result of Beacon's changing demographics, including the ever increasing influx of young families to the city and the revitalization of Beacon's mile-long Main Street, which the Howland sits in the middle of.

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Hooked on learning
Libraries all across the Hudson Valley - be they urban, suburban, or rural - are experiencing similar booms. The reasons have to do with a rethinking of the role of the library in the 21st Century, which, ironically, begins with the role of the library in the 19th Century.

Many cities in the 1800's boasted a facility known as an athenaeum - libraries that also housed art collections, hosted lectures, held music lessons, and served as a place for community discussions. The emphasis wasn't so much on books themselves as it was the acquisition of knowledge and new skills, access to equipment, and the opportunity to better oneself alongside one's peers.

Although many people today have access to endless books and information on their smartphones, the Internet can't provide context and social opportunities, or ways of learning that don't involve reading. That's where libraries today come in.

"I think like most libraries, we've realized that while books are always at the core of our mission...patrons also learn through experience and events, and that's just valuable," says Liz Potter, director of the Phoenicia Library. "You can't check it out, its knowledge that you have to actually be in the building to get. It's really in line with our mission, which is to provide education, enlightenment, and education throughout life."

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Located in one of the most famous fly-fishing areas in the world, the Phoenicia Library has long had a "fishing room" where patrons could not only check out books about fishing, but rods and other equipment as well.

The fishing room still gets a lot of use, but kids in the Phoenicia library today are also doing a lot of hands-on learning with another tool: Robotics.

Thanks to a generous donation of equipment, the library hosts a robotics club for teens and 'tweens. "That club is probably what I'm most proud of because through play you get the opportunity to teach coding and engineering," says Potter. "These programs have to be fun, ultimately. But it's something where kids are learning skills that will be helpful for them in the future economy."

Making connections
Technology is also what helped to draw teens into the Newburgh Free Library, something that Children's Head of Youth Services, Lisa Kochik, says was encouraged by increasing the number of computers available for kids and improved wireless.

When the library hosted a program during National Computer Science and Engineering Week called "Hour of Code," which introduces kids from age 5 through high school to computer programming, Kochik noticed more kids than ever hanging out to take part in it.

"We explained to them that this was something they could do as a job," she says. "So as a result of that, kids were really into it." The Newburgh Free Library now runs regular computer programming classes as well as computer gaming and even hosts Minecraft sessions on its own closed servers.

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Socially speaking
Teens aren't the only ones viewing libraries as social opportunities. Some kids are literally making their first friends there. "People are always surprised when they see parents signing up for our early literacy programs whose kids are six-weeks-old," says Kochik. "But there are benefits to that, even if it's just social benefits and the benefit of hearing language around you."

It also gives new parents a chance to make friends with other new parents, which explains why other very-early literacy programs remain some of the most popular library programs offered. "One of the loneliest experiences can be when you're a new parent in a vast rural area where you don't know any other parents," says Potter about the Phoenicia Library's "Together Tuesdays" programs for babies through preschoolers.

"This is a way for [parents] to come together and be with their kids. I've seen so many friendships form here that have become lasting and wonderful." "We just had somebody this morning who has only lived here for a week," Figlia says about the Howland Library's Baby and Me program. "And she's already made new friends."

As libraries continue to return to their roots, kids and young parents will continue learning skills and developing relationships that they can't anywhere else. Far from being a relic of the past, libraries are cementing their place as a cornerstone for all free, healthy societies.

"We don't really have any other place in Phoenicia for people to gather for free, that's not a business or a religion," says Potter. "There must be a need for it because in just the past year our attendance has gone up 180%. People are just craving this."

Brian PJ Cronin is a freelance writer whose work appears throughout the Hudson Valley.