Essay: In West Tisbury – Time to grow a library for all

Essay: In West Tisbury – Time to grow a library for all

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Nelia Decker stopped by the other day and we found ourselves reminiscing about our time together — she as children’s librarian and me as a library trustee. Looking back over nearly two decades, many things have changed, mostly for the better. But the one thing that has stubbornly refused to improve despite all efforts is the lack of space for the collection, and worse, the lack of space for people.

Our library’s struggle to add space dates from the 1980s, when engineer Kent Healy declared the historic Music Street library building structurally unable to bear the weight of so many books. A human book brigade transported thousands of volumes from the library, up three flights of stairs into the attic of the West Tisbury Town Hall, for safe storage.

The Friends of the West Tisbury Free Public Library began raising funds at that time. Ben Moore, local architect and library user, created drawings of many possibilities. The final proposal, completed in 1988, outlined a 5,739 square foot structure designed to serve the town’s needs for 20 years. It included a multipurpose room to hold 60 people, a director’s office, a staff workroom for processing materials, a quiet reading/study room, and a space for young adults.

The plan depended on the award of state funds, which were withheld because the state considered our design too small to serve for the intended 20 years. By the time it was built, despite tireless fundraising by the Friends, the library’s public space was scaled down to 2,450 square feet.

An explosion in demand

West Tisbury loves its library and uses it heavily. I remember one town meeting where Robert Potts, then a library trustee, commented that we were a victim of our success, or something along those lines. From 1997 to 2010, the number of cardholders rose more than 1,000 percent. Eighty-nine percent of town residents (2,760 out of 3,079) have library cards. Last August, 1,500 patrons came through the door in a single day. Figures for patron visits, circulation, and program attendance from the past five years show that electronic books and the Internet have actually spurred library traffic. More than ever, the West Tisbury Library serves as our study space and our town’s living room.

Over the years, we have tried many creative ways to add space on a tight budget. In 1995, the current periodical room was added, funded by a grant and by our Friends. We did what every desperate growing family does: we painted and carpeted the basement, installed acoustic ceiling tiles, and tried to make it feel comfortable and homey. But the basement was never intended for other than mechanical and storage space. Certainly not for heavy use by patrons browsing the shelves or needing help from a librarian. There are few windows, no restroom, and the basement is reached by dark stairs or a freight lift that most people find terrifying.

In 2003, the town voted to form a building committee and to pay for a professional feasibility study. We hired Gale Associates Inc. of Weymouth who, based on our needs assessment and long range plan, recommended a building between 18,000 and 22,000 square feet. At the urging of the building committee, the plan was scaled down to 16,000 square feet. In the end, money fell short again.

In 2004, after an offhand remark by one of Gale’s designers, library director Mary Jo Joiner and Friend Diana Manter followed the idea of cutting a staircase into the floor of the children’s room, giving access to our remaining storage room, allowing the childrens’ room to function on two floors. Linda Carnegie painted fanciful murals, and the staff made it as pleasant as it could be. Filled to the ceiling with books, it claimed the last inch of habitable space to be found.

In 2007, the West Tisbury space needs committee’s final report reaffirmed what was, by now, old news. They recommended that the library needed to approximately double in size. Today, at 5,640 square feet, the library remains smaller than Ben Moore’s original 1988 design.

A new opportunity

In 2009, the Massachusetts Public Library Construction Program announced grants that might pay 50 percent of the costs of renovating and expanding the library. It was an opportunity for which we were prepared. The library had conducted extensive patron surveys in 2008. In addition, we held community input sessions to get guidance from town residents. In 2009, library director Beth Kramer participated in a series of long range planning seminars. The trustees formed a facility needs committee to identify the areas where there were most pressing needs to expand.

In 2010, we formed the nonprofit West Tisbury Library Foundation Inc., to run a full scale capital campaign. The selectmen appointed a building committee and reinforced their support by proclaiming “The Year of the West Tisbury Library.” The Friends dedicated their long-saved building fund to pay for the initial design phase. Oudens and Ello Architects was hired to come up with preliminary schematics, now on display at the library and on the library’s website (westtisburylibrary.org). They are not final plans, definitely still open to change, public comment, input, and debate. So far, this has cost the town nothing.

The current plan calls for a facility of 13,300 square feet, still considerably smaller than the 2003 study, and at the lower end of the range that the state provides as guidance. The library trustees and staff believe this plan will adequately serve the town and is of sufficient size to qualify for the state grant.

What’s next?

There are two library-related articles on this year’s annual town meeting warrant, to be voted on at town meeting on April 12:

Article 18 asks “To see if the town will vote to authorize the renovation and expansion of the West Tisbury Free Public Library, contingent on the receipt of an MBLC construction grant and donation of private funds, which together will cover 75 percent of the total project costs.”

Article 19 asks “To see if the town will vote to authorize the West Tisbury selectmen to apply for, accept, and expend any state grants which may be available for the renovation and construction of an addition to the West Tisbury Free Public Library.”

Neither article asks the town for funding. Neither obligates the town to approve a design or an appropriation in the future. Both are formalities required by the state, allowing the grant application to go forward by demonstrating basic support from the community.

The state will announce grant winners in June or July. We hope West Tisbury will be one of them and that the West Tisbury Library Foundation will meet its goals for private fundraising. Only under these conditions, in April of 2012, would the library ask voters for the remaining 25 percent of the cost of the project. We feel this will be an excellent value for taxpayers and a lasting benefit for the community.

We hold monthly forums, to help the conversation along. The forums are also televised. The next forum will be Monday, April 4, at 5:30 pm, at the library. Everyone is encouraged to listen and speak. We will be listening closely.

Hermine Hull is a writer for the Martha’s Vineyard Times. First elected in 1993, she served 18 years as a West Tisbury Library trustee, a position from which she will retire this spring.