T he Stetson Branch Library is in the unlikeliest of spots, tucked into an otherwise drab strip mall on Dixwell Avenue between Foote and Admiral Streets. But there it is, against all odds—punctuated by a bright splash of a mural spelling out a simple command, and one regularly followed in the Stetson space: “READ.”
Stetson’s librarian concurs. Clad in an earth-colored head wrap, Diane Brown rules the roost at this branch of the New Haven Free Public Library with a quiet, even, generous hand. She’s a support, a guide, a friend, a mother looking straight at you from behind sleek, librarian-appropriate glasses, alternately kind, stern, and stomach-clutchingly hilarious.
More than a librarian, she’s a community mentor who exudes the confidence and the love necessary to pull it all off. Under her watch, Stetson has truly transformed. When Brown took the helm in 2006, the branch was a rough place. It attracted young people from the neighborhood looking for conflict. Drug deals took place in the parking lot, and little attention was paid to the trove of books stored on Stetson’s shelves. “I was busy breaking up fights when I first started,” she says. “We’ve changed a lot since then.”
Determined to restore order, Brown looked to the police as well as religious and community members for help. Born and raised in the Dixwell neighborhood, she drew on existing relationships and reached out to other businesses in the plaza to provide resources, advice, guidance and security. Over time, Stetson transformed from a notoriously dangerous spot into a safe haven in the neighborhood.
Because of that hard work, Stetson is now a color-splashed, resource-rich space populated with people and picture books alike. “I feel a certain obligation to the community, and the black community as a whole,” Brown says. She’s the only African-American library branch manager in New Haven. “My job is to answer to the needs of the community as best I can.” Brown considers herself a public servant, feeling rewarded, say, when a young person comes in with an “A” on a homework assignment a library staff member helped with. Or when a student puts together a well-constructed science experiment relying on Stetson resources, which are especially vital in supporting young people with troubled track records, ongoing pregnancies, and economic hardship. “I try to meet people where they are. Everyone has problems, I’ve had my share.” She’s a big-proponent of self-education. “You don’t need an institution to learn. Come to the library and pick up a book. Travel with a book. Explore.”
Stetson has regular family nights, featuring arts and crafts, music, poetry. Monday and Tuesday mornings at the library are pre-school storytime. Homework help center, run by Brown, is from 3-5 every afternoon the library is open.
Brown is looking to boost book circulation by working directly with teachers to set up library shelves in their classrooms. “I pull themed books for them and bring them over each month. Teachers don’t always have the resources they need—so we need to work together.”
More people discover the library each month. Civic and community groups including the National Council of Negro Women, Department of Families and Children, Higher One, Community Health Network and Teach Our Children hold meetings and events in Stetson’s space. “People feel a sense of community. It feels comfortable and open,” Brown says. Budget cuts meant the branch is now closed Thursdays and Fridays. Brown admits it’s not ideal but says New Haven Free Public Library director Christopher Korenowsky is working to get each branch open every day, with its own children’s librarian and services tailored towards adults. “That’s our ideal and it’s a goal the whole library system is working toward,” Brown says.
Stetson’s collection is marked most especially by African-American literature. There’s an adult, young adult and children’s collection, fiction and non-fiction. “That’s what the branch specializes in because of the community we’re in,” says Brown. “We have a large collection of books focused on African-American social issues: civil rights, the black panther party movement. We have poetry by Langston Hughes, and other notable African-Americans.” Stetson is careful to preserve the classics of black literature, she says. “A lot of them are no longer in print.”
Along with that specialty, the library features general interest, science, history, contemporary fiction and many other categories of books as well. Whatever Stetson doesn’t have can be shipped over from another branch.
“But I think our collection is slamming,” Brown says.
Stetson Branch, New Haven Free Public Library
200 Dixwell Avenue, New Haven (map)
Mon-Tue 10am-6pm, Wed 12-8pm, Sat 12-5pm, Closed Thu-Fri and Sun
Written and photographed by Uma Ramiah.