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Inside Town Government

The East Smithfield Public Library

By Ron Scopelliti

True to the nature of her job, East Smithfield Public Library director Cynthia Muhlbach tends to speak softly. But her low volume forms a sharp contrast to the library’s origin, which goes back to the eardrum-numbing clatter of the textile looms in Georgiaville and Esmond.

The library grew out of two separate organizations each founded by the owners of the villages’ mills. The Bernon Public Library was founded in 1872 by the owners of the Bernon Mill, and the Esmond Library was founded in 1916 by the owners of the Esmond Mill. According to the library’s website, the library boards incorporated under one board as the East Smithfield Public Library in 1967. Since 1985, the library has been located in the former Dorothy T.P. Dame Elementary School on Esmond Street.

“A lot of people who grew up in this town have great affection for this building, both for its history as a library and a school,” Muhlbach says.

Muhlbach has been director for just under two years, and when asked for one thing that stood out to her when she came to the library she says: “I would say this is the friendliest library I have ever worked for. That’s a great thing for a library.”

The staff consists of 15 employees, mostly part-time, and many of whom have a long history with the library.

“We’ve got a lot of long-time staff who have been here 20, 30, 40 years,” she says. And it’s a staff that has seen the library’s services expand widely over the past decades. In addition to traditional books, they lend DVDs, audio books, and offer access to public computers, laptops, wifi, and a number of other onsite resources, listed more full on their website, www.eastsmithfieldpubliclibrary.org.

There are also resources available online with a library card, including E-books through the Ocean State Libraries (OSL) network, and reference services and resources through AskRI.

“Through AskRI, people in the state of Rhode Island can use their library at home 24/7 to get information from databases – reputable databases – not just what comes up in a Google search engine,” Muhlbach says.

The library is also getting into the “maker” movement, providing both high-tech and low-tech resources for patrons of all ages to use in their creative pursuits. Recent additions include a 3D scanner, a 3D printer, a sewing machine, and robotics components for young children.

“Some of it has already been used for programs with the public,” Muhlbach says, while the staff is still training with other technology. She and the staff are looking into creating a dedicated “makerspace” in one of the building’s former classrooms.

Much of the funding for the maker gear came from a Champlin Foundation grant, which also funded other improvements such as an LED lighting upgrade.

“The Champlin Foundation is a very big supporter of libraries,” Muhlbach says.

Despite the library’s expanding technology and online presence, it still has the grassroots feeling of a neighborhood organization.

“We do have people who walk, and people who ride their bikes,” Muhlbach says.

“We have a lot of people who come in, not every day, but almost every day,” she adds, “And we have a group of kids who come in after school almost every day also.”

Ages range from young children coming in with parents or grandparents for story time, to senior citizens coming in for computer classes. They also get people who come in just to sit and read.

“This is the first library I’ve ever been at where we have a lot of people who sit and read newspapers and magazines. In none of my other libraries has it happened to the extent that it does here.”

Members of the community also do their part to help out at the library.

“We do get volunteers’ help,” Muhlbach says, with students from Bryant University classes often coming in, as well as students from the elementary and secondary schools. They also have long-time volunteers who have been coming in for years, to perform specialized tasks like picking out books to send to nursing homes and shut-ins.

Friends of the East Smithfield Public Library is also still a very active group, putting on bake sales, book sales, jewelry sales, and holiday events to help the library.

“A lot of the programs we have are paid for by our Friends of the Library,” Muhlbach says

While the library has gone through several location changes in its history, she thinks it will be staying put for quite a while. And though there has been talk of expansion in the past, Muhlbach doesn’t see it happening anytime soon.

“The way the town situation is with taxes, and with all the bond issues, I don’t think that will happen in quite a long time,” she says.

And while both Mulbach and Greenville Public Library director Dorothy Swain have noted that they’re trying to establish more cooperation between the two libraries, and are meeting on a monthly basis, there are no plans to merge the libraries, an idea put forward by various town officials over the years.

“There is something to be said for the smaller neighborhood libraries, because it’s easier for people to get to them,” Muhlbach says. “To me, Greenville doesn’t seem too far down the road, but for somebody who doesn’t have a car, Greenville is very far down the road.”

One message Muhlbach would like to get out to the public is that she values their input.

“We want to be useful,” she says. “We want to help people in any way we can.

“If people have ideas on what the library should be doing, send us your ideas, or call and chat with us. Let us know what kind of things you would like, because it is your library.”