A brown-haired boy walks up to the counter of the Westgate Library on Albuquerque’s far West Side and asks branch manager Stephanie Miller where to find books on the Holocaust.
“Are you doing an assignment?” Miller asks.
“I just really want to read about it,” the boy says.
Miller leads him to the nearby shelves – little more than a car length away in the cozy one-room library – but not without another question. Wasn’t his hair blue before?
No, it wasn’t, he tells her, and Miller heads back to the front counter.
On the way, she sends a friendly check-up glance toward a trio of younger boys pasted to computer screens displaying the Cartoon Network’s Web site. They talk excitedly in Spanish and English about the merits of Superman versus Batman.
“I love being a librarian,” Miller says. “You get to help people immediately.”
Even in the Internet age, small neighborhood libraries like Westgate are invaluable to their patrons, library officials say. They offer information and services for little or nothing, along with friendly, helpful staff who help distill the sea of data into a sweet dewdrop of knowledge.
Throughout an after-school afternoon at Westgate, a steady flow of children from neighboring Carlos Rey Elementary tap Miller on the elbow with questions. Two patrons get help with the automatic checkout machine.
Miller patiently and kindly helps them all, later explaining that the human touch – slower than a mouse click, but warmer – helps make acquiring information in a library an irreplaceable process.
A more practical advantage of a library, she notes, is the financial one: Patrons can use magazines, newspapers and the Internet more or less for free.
“There aren’t too many places you can hang out and they don’t want you to spend money on something or other,” Miller says. “It’s a good sign of a community when you have a library in it.”
Westgate, at 2,650 square feet, is one of the smallest libraries in the Albuquerque/Bernalillo County system. There are 17 libraries ranging in size from Ernie Pyle’s 1,129 square feet to the main library’s 104,577 square feet, said Julia Clarke, assistant director of the library system.
For Westgate patron Mary Jo Andrade, 26, the library’s small size is one of its best qualities. She grew up in the Westgate Heights neighborhood and comes once or twice a month, often accompanied by her daughter. With the library being a single room, keeping an eye on the 6-year-old girl is easy. Not that it’s too great a worry anyway.
“She always just looking at the books,” Andrade says. “I feel comfortable coming in here. It kind of feels like home.”
When Andrade’s husband, a Marine, was stationed abroad, she says she would regularly log on to the library’s Internet-enabled computers to e-mail him. Because the library was quiet, she didn’t feel the pressure of strangers’ eyes wandering across her screen, an intrusion she found more common at larger libraries, she says.
“Here it’s more private,” she says.
With a child development center and an elementary school next door, children are one of the library’s defining features. Many participate in the library’s reading programs, and they even gave the library a giant paper heart as a thank you for its services.
“When they give you a piece of artwork, it’s really nice,” Miller says.
Another distinct feature of the library is the number of Spanish speakers, Miller says. To better serve them, the library is adding more Spanish-language materials, she says.
“For many of the users at Westgate, this might be their first public library experience,” says Eileen Longsworth, director of the Albuquerque/Bernalillo County Library System.
She says many of the library’s users who come from Central American countries are unaccustomed to a free library’s services, and employees often help them navigate the foreign system.
Miller says she even helps some fill out online forms for the Immigration and Naturalization Service, now known as U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
On a recent day, Michelle Martinez, 37, sat in front of one of Westgate’s computers, the screen filled with the pink of the Avon Web site. She sells the cosmetics part time, and has been coming to the library for about six months to pick up the occasional book and put in orders for more Avon merchandise.
“It’s a good library,” she says, but notes she might stop coming as often once she gets Internet access at home.
As the Internet has reached further into society, and digital media have become more popular, Westgate and other Albuquerque public libraries have evolved to keep up with the times.
“We are providing services now that were unheard of 10 years ago,” Longsworth says, including an online catalog of classical music and downloadable newspapers from all over the world, much of which is accessible from any Internet-connected computer with nothing more than a library patron’s name and library card number.
The Los Griegos Library in the North Valley has found other ways to connect with its community.
The library, which at 14,000 square feet is considered average size, offers its wall and display case as space for local artists to show their work. Librarian Peggy Hessing at Los Griegos says the wall and case are booked for two years, with 80 percent of the artists living nearby.
Three paintings by LeeAnne Ogletree, a local amateur artist and branch manager of the Lomas Tramway Library, hang on the wall. One, entitled “Tree of Life,” is of a dark tree branch separated into six smaller, monochrome panels arranged in a zigzag pattern up the wall.
“It’s such a great display space,” Ogletree says.”Some of the artists I’ve come in contact with through that wall, I’ve done projects with.”
Ogletree, who also served as branch manager at Los Griegos library for about a year beginning in 2001, says it is “very much a neighborhood kind of branch” that many patrons walk to.
Neighborhood resident Howard Stallings, 56, says he could walk to the library, but it’s usually just another stop during a day of driving around doing chores.
He holds a stack of children’s books about 10 high while his 5-year-old son, Silas, runs his hands over the shelved books, occasionally calling out a title to his father.
“They have readings, they have things for kids and it’s free,” he says. “It’s a way for the community to share.”