SOUTH CHINA — Young children oohed and aahed at the stick bug and box turtle, interrupting the instructor to ask questions and to beg to get a better look at the live specimens.

“How do you tell a male from a female?” one boy asked.

“Can I see?” a young girl said, as she strained to see the bug held in the instructor’s hands.

The 25 children sat close together in a small room in the back of the South China Public Library, the oldest continuously operating library in the state.

Just over seven miles away, the Albert Church Brown Memorial Library in China Village was closed, waiting until the next day, when it would be open for four of the 10 hours it is open each week. When it was, children flocked there too.

A town committee recently studied the viability of keeping both libraries running in this town of 4,300 people, which has traditionally paid $4,500 each year to each library. But the buildings are inadequate in the modern library age, both because they are in cramped quarters and can only afford to be open limited hours each week, said Gary Nichols, a retired state librarian who led the study committee.

“I don’t think it makes much sense in a town of this size to have two libraries,” he said. “These two libraries are deeply underutilized and inadequate.”

The South China Library has no running water or bathroom. The Brown library has a bathroom, but the door doesn’t shut tight and the librarian workspace is a cluttered kitchen, according to the report.

Ultimately, the town needs to think about one library in a more central location, the report concluded. Later this month, the Library Services Committee will recommend a new group of people to study the feasibility of a unified library plan.

But those affiliated with both libraries feel strongly that they are doing their best to serve their end of town. They say they are happy to coordinate with each other, and both need more money, but they aren’t comfortable talking about building a new library in a central location.

“There is this large wet object in the middle of our town that precludes us from having a center,” said Randall Downer, president of the Albert Church Brown Memorial Library.

He’s talking about China Lake, which has forced development in town to cluster in three villages — South China, China and Weeks Mills — and for the libraries to be at each end of the lake.

Downer said the board felt the report was overly critical of the libraries and used the wrong data to judge how frequently the libraries are used. He and South China librarian Cheryl Baker said residents and summer visitors often park outside either library to get wireless Internet access, a service that’s important to many who can’t afford to buy it on their own.

“It really is a divisive question because there is the argument that the buildings are outdated,” Baker said. “There is the thought that we need more services; on the other hand, people love the history of the buildings. Each is in its own village. It certainly is divisive.”

Baker, a retired state worker who is a chemist by profession and library volunteer for 20 years, said a children’s program two weeks ago drew 70 children.

“It was chaos,” she said. “We definitely could have used more space.”

As a member of the Library Services Committee that studied the issue, Baker said she favors a unified library. But she added that the South China Library Board hasn’t taken a position.

Library Board President Jean Dempster said combining the libraries is only one option — and an idea that may be a long time from becoming reality. Now, she’s focused on working with the Brown library on projects and services that will make the libraries stronger for everyone.

“We’d love to be able to do more,” she said. “Another option is to put more resources into the two libraries we have.”

Nichols, the longest serving state librarian in the country when he retired in 2008, said the history of both libraries and the long years of volunteer service put in by board members has made the discussion of a unified library a sensitive issue in town.

The South China Public Library was organized in 1830 as the South China Social Library Society. After a fire destroyed the first library in 1872, it was moved to the present structure on Village Street in 1900. It was doubled in size in 1981 when a children’s room was added.

The Albert Church Brown Memorial Library began as the China Library Association in 1936, according to the report. It was first located on the second floor of the Woodsum Hall in China Village and later moved to Main Street. In the early 1940s, the 90-year-old widow of Albert Church Brown, a Massachusetts family with ties to the area, set up an endowment for the library.

The report recognizes the sensitivity of the situation by proposing a gradual move toward a combined facility.

“Certainly a move of this size won’t happen right away,” the report says. “The economy is tough now; there’s also a process, an evolution in thinking that must occur.”

Susan Cover — 621-5643

[email protected]

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