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A s the reggae band warmed up, dozens of people flocked to the grass, eager to snag a prime spot for spreading out picnic blankets and setting up beach chairs.

It was a warm, humid evening in Westville, just right for the Jamaican-tinged live music that carried throughout the neighborhood. By the time Profile Reggae Band began its second or third song, the audience had swelled to roughly 100 people. Toes tapped, children played and enticing scents from a food truck wafted through the air.

The scene, which played out on August 4, didn’t take place at a dedicated music venue, and it wasn’t one of the city’s popular concerts on the Green.

It happened at a library.

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There were no shush-ing librarians that night outside the Mitchell branch of the New Haven Free Public Library. Throughout the city, the 127-year-old system’s five outposts (the main Ives library plus four branches) have shown a willingness to shirk orthodoxy for the sake of pragmatism, adapting to better meet the needs and wants of the people who live here. “It has been something that’s been evolving for a long time,” says Brad Bullis, the library’s public services administrator for adult services. Though the core of the longtime mission remains—offering a rich repository of books—modernity has compelled library leaders to find other ways of serving and engaging people.

Nothing demonstrates this better than the libraries’ robust and diverse event calendars, highlighting the institution’s role as a convener and active educator. Among current offerings: computer classes for adults, a teen gaming club, chess clubs for all ages, a Lego club, a foreign film series and English as a Second Language classes, among many others.

Library leaders feel a responsibility to keep the institution “an anchor of the community,” says Bullis, and that means giving New Haveners what they need, especially those who aren’t likely to get it any other way. There’s an emphasis on basic computer courses, even a class designed for those aged 50 and up, and other courses helping people gain employment, covering topics like resume-writing and networking.

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Activities for children and teens have been expanded and tweaked to appeal to current trends under the leadership of the library’s Young Minds Supervisor Marie Jarry. The Wilson branch, for instance, hosts a “teen anime and manga club,” where teens gather to watch anime (a Japanese-invented animation form), talk about manga (Japanese comics) and discuss Japanese pop culture.

At the Stetson branch, a free skateboarding club called “Stetson Skates” meets every Monday to learn how to skate, practicing moves in the parking lot. The Fair Haven branch hosts interactive “Peabody on the Road” visits from the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. The reggae concert at the Mitchell branch was part of the annual Beecher Park Summer Concert Series and Hi-Fi Pie Fest, which the Mitchell branch hosts in partnership with the Westville Village Renaissance Alliance.

The two organizations partner up on holiday events, author talks, art shows, workshops and children’s programs as well, says Sharon Lovett-Graff, who’s been Mitchell’s branch manager for the past five years. “I love to collaborate on programs with community members and organizations, and since I live and work in this (Westville) community, it is easier to do so,” she says. “People stop me on the street in front of my house all the time to talk about possible programs they would like to see or lead in the library, or to chat about a new book they just read about in The New York Times.”

A resulting challenge, she says, is meeting demand. With so many cultural programs and educational opportunities, those who haven’t visited the library in a while may find it well worth checking out.

New Haven Free Public Library
Ives (main): 133 Elm St (map) | more info
Fair Haven: 182 Grand Ave (map) | more info
Mitchell: 37 Harrison St (map) | more info
Stetson: 200 Dixwell Ave (map) | more info
Wilson: 303 Washington Ave (map) | more info

Written by Cara Rosner. Photographed by Dan Mims.

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Over the past 10 years, Cara has been writing about the people and places that make Greater New Haven great. After a couple of years working in nonprofit marketing, the former New Haven Register editor and reporter is returning to her first love: journalism.

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