What are the names of the seven dwarfs?
That was one of the most frequently asked questions to the reference desk at the Darien Library in pre-Internet days, according to Louise Berry, a former library director, who worked at the library for 35 years.
“In the 70s, before computers and Google, people always would call the library and ask all kinds of trivia questions like that,” said Berry, a Stamford resident.
The month of May marks Darien Library’s 125th birthday.
As a way to celebrate, on May 29, the library will hold Giving Day, where it will try to raise $125,000 within 24 hours.
“This is an opportunity for all of our users to give back on one day,” said Caroline Lopez, the library’s associate director of operations.
In addition, on the same day, there will be activities throughout the day including crafts and a family scavenger hunt throughout the building. There will also be cake and coffee at 4 p.m., near the front desk.
To donate, visit darienlibrary.org/donate or visit the Darien Library on Facebook.
“We are a public-private partnership,” Lopez said. “The town funds 75% of our budget, which goes toward operations, salaries and benefits. We fundraise for collections, programs, and technology. Our goal is to raise $700,000 per year.”
The Darien Library has had a total of six locations around town over the past 125 years. The original location was at 805 Post Road, where there is currently a Shell gas station.
Other locations included the former Holly Bell Homestead and 35 Leroy Avenue, where the Board of Education is now located. The library has been at its current location, at 1441 Post Road, since 2009.
The earlier years
“Reference questions were a big part of what we did, of what people looked to the library for,” Berry said.
Additional questions that were often asked of library staff were: “What are the hours of the town dump? and “How do I start a business?”
“We had a Rolodex with answers,” Berry said. “Blanche [Parker] was a wiz at the desk.”
Parker, who is assistant head of knowledge and learning services, has worked at the library for 41 years. She started as an intern and was later promoted to reference librarian.
Many times, people asked health-related questions about different diseases.
“They would ask us questions that they would be intimidated to ask their doctor,” Parker said.
“We had boxes of information that we would order, and go through little catalogs that the government published,” Berry said. They would also consult world almanacs and encyclopedias.
“We both have master’s degrees in library science and we learned you don’t learn facts. You learn how to find sources,” Parker said.
Changing with the times
The Darien Library mirrored the advancements in technology that were taking place outside its doors, according to Berry.
In 1984, “we got our first computer, an IBM desktop. We used it for the budget,” Berry said. “Before that, every time we made a change in the budget, we had to use Wite-out and retype it.”
The library evolved from an information-centric organization to one also focused on programming and being a community center.
“When Superstorm Sandy came through [in 2012], we got hit hard along the coast and people were in a state of shock about it,” Berry said. “The library served as a community gathering place when the area lost power.”
It stayed open late and residents would charge their devices and use the computers.
“I heard people say, ‘Did you lose your power?’ And the answer would be, ‘No, but I wanted to check on my neighbors,’” Berry said. “It was like a group hug. People needed that interaction and it was here that they came.”
In recent years, the library has had an increasing role of cultural programming, Berry said.
There are Friday night movies, book discussions, a children’s area, and entertainment.
It has always been a “guessing game” as far as predicting what people would enjoy at the library, Berry said.
“What amazes me is the interests in this town are so diverse that almost anything you do will attract its own audience,” she said.
In 2010, a man wanted to play a variety of harmonicas at the library. “It didn’t strike me as something that was going to be a very popular program,” Berry said.
Berry was wrong. “We had standing room only in the auditorium,” she said.
While the library staff is still asked reference questions today, “it’s much harder questions because it’s information they’re not able to find on Google,” Berry said.
Customer service has always been the library’s main focus, according to Parker.
“We were never to answer ‘no’ to anyone,” she said.
In the 1990s, a woman wanted to check out the Town Plan and the library had only one copy of it. “So, I went to the copy machine and made a copy,” Parker said. “It was 90 pages.”
“People need a human touch. They call and ask the time or the day. They want to hear a voice. People come in and sit and come to talk,” she added.
Despite all the changes the library underwent through the decades, it has remained constant, according to Berry. “It’s an important place where people go to reconnect with their neighbors,” Berry said.
Alan Gray, director of the Darien Library, said people come to the library “to follow their passions, develop their interests, and improve their lives. They do it with friends and acquaintances or by themselves, and in the library they often form a community of common interests that builds on itself. The library is the center of the Darien community and it brings people together; it doesn’t separate them from others as too much of the Internet does these days.”
Darien Library fast facts
According to the 2018 Connecticut State Library statistical profile on the Darien Library:
- In 2018, there were 383,264 visits to Darien Library.
- Darien Library is the most actively used library in the state.
- Among 179 libraries, Darien is, per capita: First in visits and First in circulation (Darien residents take out 20.8 items on average per year).
- Darien residents take out more books than any other residents at any other library.