Dozens of local residents squeezed into the Rotunda of the John Jermain Library, on Saturday, December 6, as architect Richard Munday began a community workshop for local residents who were urged to share their ideas for a possible division of services between the existing library building and a new location.
Â Â Munday, of the Connecticut firm Newman Architects, reported that at a similar forum held last month, people said the main problems with the current space were a perceived lack of parking and a lack of space. Associate architect, Michael Scott continued and said that the core priorities of the library were its history, its collections, and its outreach programs. Through a series of activities designed by Newman Architects, Munday challenged the forum’s participants to address the problems of the existing library while still protecting its priorities. In the first activity, attendees used an activity sheet to show which village locations, such as the park or grocery store, they go to before or after visiting the library.
Â Â The second activity required everyone to split up into five groups of around six people. Each group was given a poster board with a long rectangle printed on it. The front third of the rectangle was shaded in black and this symbolized the amount of space available at the current location. The remaining rectangle space was shaded in grey, and this symbolized the extra space at a second library building. Each group was given a handful of thin foam board blocks with a different library service or space, such as collections or a senior reading room, printed on its surface. The groups were told to place these services in the rectangle in order of importance from left to right, and asked members to thoroughly consider which services should stay in the existing building and which ones could be moved to a new location. While describing this activity to attendees, Munday said “if you think about each of the services as a kind of book and you think about the place [of the library] as a kind of book shelf, how will you fit all of the services onto the bookshelf?”
Â Â One of the key issues that came out of this activity was the accessibility and safety of the building, especially for parents with young children. Parents make up a large number of library users, but they are often absent at these forums.
“This is a beautiful historical building, but it is not accessible,” said local resident Larry Baum. “I have arrived here with four kids, carrying a stroller and I can tell you that [this building] does not work for people from my demographic. In order to have a communal place, it has to be accessible … I am disappointed that more of my peers and fellow parents are not here today.”
Tippy Amerest, a library board member and local teacher, echoed Baum’s concerns: “I couldn’t use the library from the time my son was young because I was afraid he would run into the street [while I was getting out of the car.]” Even one older resident sympathized with parents who find it difficult to safely enter the building with their children. “It is very dangerous to get out of the car with children. You have to provide parking room for any children’s area,” said Priscilla Ciccariello.
The library, though, has been exploring ways to include the voice of parents in the plans for the library. Library Director Catherine Creedon has visited the Parent Teacher Student Association and has spoken with many of the school’s community groups. Creedon has also made sure that free childcare is provided at the library during these forums.
Local mother Nancy Hallock, who attended the Saturday meeting, said, “There were many interested parents who were unable to attend the meeting today.” Hallock is looking into ways of distributing copies of the activities given out at the forum to parents. She is also trying to organize mini-forums with parent groups.
The ailing and disabled are also faced with the issue of limited accessibility to the library. Library Board President Christiane Neuville said she has difficulty maneuvering around the building because of recent back surgery: “This building is hard on me because there is no elevator. I had some friends who couldn’t come today because of this.”
During the mini-group activity, some participants addressed accessibility problems by moving the children’s section and reading room to a different location. Some reasoned that a new site would offer safer parking. Others felt that a building on the plot of land by the Gateway would be convenient for parents who take their children to Mashashimuet Park.
Others, however, felt that separating the children’s and adult’s sections would create new problems. “I would personally have to make two trips. I wouldn’t have time to get my books,” one mother observed. Some parents wondered whether the whole library could be housed in one, roomier, location, and perhaps the existing building would be used for another purpose.
One workshop mini-group toyed with the idea of an expansion to the existing building and duplicating certain services to avoid moving key services to another location. For example, one group suggested that the children’s reading room and the children’s books be housed in the same space. This group placed the archives at a separate location reasoning that this space could be open from time to time, which would cut down on staff costs.
Other attendees recognized a need for a second location. Some wondered about the feasibility of the costs associated with this arrangement. “The village might say that we can’t afford two buildings,” said Nicholas Quennell. “This is something that I think about a lot,” said Creedon. “If we do have two buildings one important thing to do is to find [existing] staff willing to work at the separate buildings.”
As the workshop progressed, the issue of funding became a pressing matter. Some believed the current economic crisis would allow the library to construct a new building at a lower rate. “Any kind of public project needs to seek bids for the work. When people are looking for work, especially in the building industry, we might be able to pay a lesser amount for the project,” said Creedon. Others wondered if the project could be phased out, or built bit by bit. Creedon is also exploring other avenues of funding. “We are looking into grants and private donors, and we have been hosting fundraisers … All of it is going to lessen the amount of the referendum,” said Creedon.
Regardless of funding issues, nearly everyone agrees that this is an important time to make a decision about the future of the library. Many participants spoke of how in a recession, people are more likely to use their local library. “People aren’t going to buy a book anymore, they will come here,” said Neuville. Creedon reports that lately the library’s “usage is skyrocketing.”
Architect Michael Scott said, “We’ve been very excited to work on this project. We haven’t fully digested everything that was discussed on Saturday, but we will certainly be ready [by January or February] to present a few options to see how a building would fit in either one or two locations.”