The new teen loft sports new seating, a flat-screen TV and gaming system, donated by a patron, for game nights. Photo: Denise Civiletti

They are cathedrals of the mind; hospitals of the soul; theme parks of the imagination. On a cold, rainy island, they are the only sheltered public spaces where you are not a consumer, but a citizen, instead.’ – Caitlin Moran, author

Despite the paradigm shift wrought by the digital age in how information is dispensed and consumed, how people learn, how they are entertained and how they relate to others, the public library retains a central role in its community.

To be sure, the digital age has transformed the public library the way it’s transformed just about everything else. The library is no longer simply a repository of books to be read or borrowed. It has evolved into a community hub, a place where people make social and business connections, a place of learning for people of all cultures and ages, from toddlers to seniors.

Riverhead Free Library — a community institution that’s more than 120 years old — remains relevant because it has evolved in response to the changes brought by the digital age and in response to changes in the local community.

The library’s evolution has changed how it utilizes the physical space it’s occupied since 1964.

Anyone who hasn’t visited the Riverhead library in a while will see the recent changes as soon as they walk through the entrance doors.

Kerrie McMullen-Smith was the head reference librarian before being appointed library director in 2016. Photo: Denise Civiletti

“We’ve opened it up a lot,” library director Kerrie McMullen-Smith said.

New flooring, fresh paint and a new layout give the space a new, lighter feel.

New patron spaces have been created to fill community needs: a career information center, where a career counselor is available once a week; access to the foundation center database to help nonprofit groups search for grants; a genealogy center where people can get help researching family history; even a revamped browsing room — a community room — where people can relax with a book or magzine, play a board game or card game, or put together a jigsaw puzzle. The activities room and the meeting room — which also serves as a space for concerts and performances — remain a hive of activity every day of the library’s operation.

“We change with the times,” McMullen-Smith said. “We have to be in two worlds — digital and paper.”

McMullen-Smith started as a part-time reference librarian in Riverhead 13 years ago. She became the head reference librarian in 2013 and the libaray director in 2016.

The reference department has undergone a metamorphosis. Today, the department head has the title of adult information services director and outreach coordinator. The person in that role, Catherine Montazem, develops and schedules a host of courses, classes and programs on everything from English classes to diabetes management courses to child-rearing.

The library’s on-site reference holdings have been consolidated and pared down. There isn’t the same need for sets of encyclopedias, McMullen-Smith notes. The library has deep, rich resources of on-site and online research databases. There’s a digital learning center now, with computer stations and a smart board.

The library’s computer lab has been relocated and provides both computers and spaces where people who bring their own laptops can sit and work. It offers traditional desks as well as alternative seating. There are designated quiet areas as well.

Separate spaces designed for children and teens offer special features and holdings.

There’s a growing collection of Blu-Ray disks for borrowing, in addition to the old-fashioned DVDs. Patrons can still borrow audio CDs for music and audio books — and people do, McMullen-Smith said.

Riverhead Free Library even has a “seed library,” a kind of seed exchange housed in a repurposed card catalogue cabinet, where patrons can browse through packets of seeds for growing flowers, herbs and vegetables.

Riverhead launched a new program for homeless patrons — special library cards, the River Hope cards — that allow them to borrow books.

The new library card came about when McMullen-Smith, working at the reference desk, would be approached by homeless people — who weren’t eligible for a library card and couldn’t borrow a book — asking her to keep the books they were reading aside and save them for the next day.

She reached out to Maureen’s Haven and the River Hope card was born. With the card, homeless patrons can not only borrow books, they can use the library’s computers, access databases, get career counseling and access universal courses through the library’s website.

“It’s validating,” McMullen-Smith said. “They’re no longer just coming here to hang out.”

Homeless patrons have found jobs and housing thanks to their access to these services, she said.

“The public library was founded to change lives,” McMullen-Smith said, “and that’s what this does.”

The public is invited to Riverhead Free Library’s annual meeting on Wednesday, May 8 at 7 p.m.

Residents are enouraged to come in and get reacquainted with the library and all it has to offer, McMullen-Smith said.

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Denise Civiletti
Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.