Is the Internet and this WiFi nonsense* a Lifeline for Threatened Libraries and the Towns Where They Live?

I’m enjoying that reality in Watkins Glen, NY

Photo by Ehud Neuhaus on Unsplash

I visit Watkins Glen, NY, once or twice a year. Being a restless and readerly person, I include a swing by the sweet little public library located just off the major drag.

For those who do not know Watkins Glen, it is a small town at the very base of Seneca Lake. It’s in the Finger Lakes region of the state, an area spectacularly beautiful, remote, and dying.

The land isn’t dying. The trees, the lakes, the animals are all fine as near as I can tell.

What’s dying is the town.

Companies and businesses are relocating, closing, consolidating, taking jobs and the educated, skilled, and mobile with them. While local wineries are booming and the tourism that comes with them is thriving, these are seasonal, specialized, and not nearly enough to brace up a town.

Watkins Glen is a village of about 1900, founded about 1800. Now it’s known for its wineries, the internationally famous Watkins Glen International race track, and superb parks and hiking. In the past, it’s served different roles including spa destination and road racing through the center of town.

Not surprisingly, with little work and opportunties, people are finding their ways elsewhere. What they leave behind are some exceptional historic landmark quality buildings, the infrastructure for a dynamic town center, and beauty, so much beauty.

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What they also leave behind are some of the friendliest, most genuine, and kind people. Children smile and say hello, move aside or onto the street to let you pass when the sidewalk gets narrow. People want to talk, enjoy hearing about you and telling you about themselves. While there is always the weather to discuss, you’ll find yourself debating the merits of seasons, best barbecue sauce, and sports cars.

My favorite store in town — one of the very few that remain — is primarily a consignment store for those channeling superior china, milk glass, crystal, children’s board games and Barbie dolls. There are bona fide vetted antiques. There are also fine chests and tables as well as tin signs from real gas stations, diners, drive-ins, and dives.

Then there are the treasures from homes, long-cherished Pyrex and Farberware, dainty shot glasses and wedding china. Immaculate and perfect, there’s no way to tell if they were remains of an estate, the result of culling possessions, or a run of bad luck that means you sell whatever you have to in order to eat.

I visit every time and discover pieces of my past. One time it was my grandmother’s china pattern, another time it was thermoses and lunchboxes like the ones we used in elementary school.

Most of the time, I don’t buy anything, simply wander through slowly, admiring and picking up and admiring some more. I put the things back as exactly as they were except for the time I bought a tea cup and saucer for a young friend that matched the pattern from her mother’s house when she was a tiny child.

Books? Oh, yes, there are books. Most of them are beloved and ragged and beaten-up paperbacks by the usual suspects: James Patterson, Nora Roberts, Janet Evanovich, Lee Child. Thrillers and mysteries dominate, but there are solid contributions from romance, inspirational, and how-to-do.

I scored several original Nancy Drew mysteries in excellent condition for a fraction of their street value. As the owner rang up the sale, I had to ask why he priced them so low. He sighed. I want to move them. I don’t want to do ebay and amazon and all that nonsense. People around here don’t have a lot of money, so I price them to sell.

I love this store, wandered through it yesterday, found a pristine copy of a women’s fiction writer I admire. Everywhere but here the book goes for a minimum of nine dollars, used and looking it. Here, in this magical store, the book was three dollars. Again, he wants to move his inventory.

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Here’s where the internet comes in.

As in the internet is now available and enlivening the tired shelves, the moribund furniture. There are teenagers in the library now, doing work, searching and laughing and engaging with the outside world. A forty-something woman is doing a job search here, occasionally taking a call in a professional voice, but mainly scouring websites, fingers flying over applications. A couple in their twenties has taken over a table. They sit across from one another, scowling into their laptops, feet linked under the table.

You can get wifi for free here. You can also check out electronic resources. One of them for a week. Only one device. For a week.

This is revolutionary, a genuine game changer. Last year, the library was a dead zone — in every sense of the word. This year, there are people, there is energy, activity, discussion — and that woman is back on the phone again with what sounds like a hot opportunity.

While I don’t know the particulars of this technological miracle, I do know that it comes courtesy of the other libraries in the region, pooling together their resources and sharing what they have, what they know, what the wealthy areas can give to the ones that are more hard up, like Watkins Glen.

So, the title comes courtesy of a wizened librarian at the front desk who informed me that she isn’t sure what this wifi nonsense is all about, but you can get it here and here is the information. She did not understand my supremely basic questions, but pointed me to the sign that gave me what I needed to know to connect, to spend time writing this blog in a library suddenly alive and dynamic.

I found myself a surge protector power strip, set up on a tiny wooden child’s desk from a closed school and started typing. Their website is lovely, lively, perfect. I moved on to find a restaurant for dinner on the way home and then on here to Medium to write this piece.

The librarian suspicious of this internet stuff came by to check that I had everything I needed, sounding a little tremulous in case I had a too-hard question, but still having to ask because that’s what librarians do. They help you find what you’re looking for, what you need to know. If they can’t help you, they will find someone who can — like the lively woman running the children’s room today. Apparently, she is a whiz with computers — and eager to help the rest of us with connecting to the world outside.

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If the internet and this wifi nonsense can save a desperate library, what other possibilities for life might there be?

People here like people. They like one another. The slower and more relaxed way of life suits them.

They know that it’s different elsewhere. Some of them have lived it. Others visit now and then and return with stories, thrilled to be back where there’s time to enjoy the sun, appreciate the breeze, admire the white caps on the lake today because it’s such a windy day.

The best of all possible worlds?