An afternoon at the revamped Mattapan Public Library

By 
Elizabeth St. Victor, Special to the Reporter
Oct. 29, 2009

Nine months after its revival, the Mattapan Branch Library is strikingly busy on a Thursday afternoon. Students clamor in and out of the young adult and children’s rooms. Older patrons use new computers or borrow from the DVD collection. A group of parents wait in the pristine lobby for their children. Called the most technologically rich library in the Boston Public Library system, it is getting its fair share of use.

The previous site, on Hazelton Street, lacked basic necessities. Its boiler sometimes worked and sometimes did not. The library could not meet the tech demands of its users. The BPL, along with City-Councilor Charles Yancey and community members, organized to rebuild the branch. As manager Maurice Gordon puts it, “The library wanted something more visible.” In February of this year, it opened to the public on Blue Hill Ave, a more central location.

The library features many amenities that are, as Children’s Librarian Ann Langone says, “the envy of many other libraries.” There are new computers, well-lighted open space for circulation, an adjacent parking lot, green space behind the building, and a beautiful interior design about which patrons and librarians alike glow. “The wood is very vibrant and light,” Gordon says with admiration. This free and elegant resource “makes [patrons] feel respected, like they are valued,” Langone says.

Left from the entrance is a large meeting and conference room with frosted windows and carpeted floors. These have been among the main attractions for adult patrons. Gordon reports that many community groups use the space for meetings ranging from civic engagement, domestic violence awareness, afrocinema, and poetry gatherings. Said Tony Plummer of the Mattapan Poetry Group: “We have used the Mattapan Library twice for our meet-up group.  It’s always clean and well maintained. Accessibility and functionality is a yes, and we haven’t encountered any problems.”

As for the burgeoning book collection? “There’s a niche growing here,” Gordon says about career and entrance exam books.

The sounds of Kreyol spoken in the lobby and a map of Haiti’s Port-au-Prince bay that decorates the library’s entrance reflect some of the cultural range of those using the space. Also, college students had not visited the library when it was on Hazelton Street. For Gordon, “it’s a case of build it and they will come.”

Maybe the most admirable and popular features of the branch, however, are those available to young people. “We have the largest young adult population in the city and the young adult room gives them the privacy and resources they need.” Laurel Cannon is the head of Friends Group, a nonprofit organization that keeps the community abreast of events at the Library. Each year there are several happenings that connect residents to the building, such as poetry slams, an annual “Bake Book and Cookout Yard Sale” and a “Soulful Slay Ride in December where children from 4 to 18 years old practice soulful carols.” These many events are ways to open the resources of the library in a “fun and drama-free way,” Cannon notes.

At 4 p.m. in the Young Adult room, Teen Librarian Clayton Cheever has no more than two minutes uninterrupted. In the multi-colored room, a student comes over and says, “Hey,” hoping for a chat. Another comes over asking, “Can I get in the study room?” quickly followed by two more hoping to get extensions on their computer privileges. Two of three study rooms are filled with teenagers writing on white boards. The common room hums with low chatter, some students sitting on the carpet floors, others on ottoman seats. As much as a workplace, the library “is a social spot to be for the teens,” Cheever says as he points to the bustling rooms around him.

“I see my role as a facilitator. I want them to feel like they’re taking ownership of the place and we’ve already got some doing just that.” For Cheever, teen achievement includes being “more successful in school” but also “provid[ing] a safe space for them to discover themselves. It’s about inspiring the freedom of speech and freedom of inquiry.” So Cheever introduces students not only to books, but also to music, movies and videogames – innovative ways to develop thinking and identity in teens. “It’s rewarding to see kids get access to new information.”

At the far end of the main room, Ann Langone points to volunteer Gabriella Gilbert, a 15-year-old Mattapan resident who participates in the Homework Assistance Program that pairs successful high school students with younger school children. “The homework help section is busy, busy, busy. Algebra, calculus? None of us can do that math anymore!”

Gabriella, however, can. “My friend told me about the [tutoring] opportunity.” Through it, she first interacted with the new library. Gabriella mostly uses the space for tutoring. She sees 5 to 6 pupils a day, one of whom is Djackyna. When asked whether she likes the library, Djackyna bashfully nods her head in affirmation. A bolder student chimes in from her seat, “I love those computers!” Through the homework help series, library card drives at schools such as Mildred Ave Middle School and Ellison/Parks Early Education, or summer reading incentives with Red Sox tickets as prizes, the new Mattapan Library is a budding asset.

“We’re going to strive to give the community what they need,” promises Gordon. Patrons and staff look forward to building on the library’s renaissance.

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