Soundings: Library design struggle in Edgartown ends with an opportunity

Have you noticed how much less stressful it is to have the viewfinder of a camera facing you than the lens? It’s the same way with newspaper writing: My side of the keyboard is usually the safer place to be.

I’ve had occasion to reflect on this during the last year of politics surrounding the Edgartown Public Library, my workplace for 25 hours each week. There was a time last fall when many of us on the library staff cringed at the arrival of each new edition of the weekly paper, with its front-page coverage of a process that seemed likely, at several junctures, to fly completely off the rails.

It’s been stressful, but more than that, it’s been humbling. The expectations I held with such smug confidence a year ago, when Edgartown launched the building committee and tasked it with developing a new library plan, have been largely confounded.

After a process that has been replete with reversals and a regrettable level of acrimony, Edgartown now has what I had frankly despaired of seeing: a plan for a new library that represents the right facility, in the right place — and an opportunity to give an amazing gift to the townspeople of today and to generations to come.

This plan transforms Edgartown’s library from an either-or facility to one with room for both-and. Nowadays, whenever the library offers a program for adults, we have to close the children’s department and kick out the kids. Whenever we hold a program for children, the noise bothers the adults. There’s room in our present building for quiet study or sociable conversation — but not for both.

This library plan includes something Edgartown sorely needs — a proper space for public programs. With an entrance allowing for access when the library is closed, this promises to be one of the busiest spaces in Edgartown, one that we’ll quickly learn to think of as belonging not to the library, but to the town.

Perhaps best of all, this library plan takes an essential public service and moves it closer to where most of Edgartown’s year-round population now lives. As a favorite patron said to me after a session of help picking out large-print books in the old Carnegie library, “Nobody lives around here in the winter. You can’t get here in the summer.”

Much as I admire this library plan, there’s no disputing that the political road from there to here was bumpy. Looking back, I believe one reason the process was so stressful is that it involved three distinct properties, each of which is problematic in its own way.

The Carnegie Library, a gift to the town in 1904 from steel magnate Andrew Carnegie and Edgartown’s own Caroline Osborn Warren, is a historic jewel. (So is Edgartown’s Button pumper engine, but that’s not the truck I want to see pulling up if there’s a fire at my house.) The library’s current location at the head of historic North Water Street is difficult to access, and even more difficult to park anywhere near, during the summer season.

Then there’s the Warren House property adjoining the library, purchased in 2004, to provide space for library expansion. One of the most dramatic setbacks to the library planning process came this fall when the Edgartown historic district commission, which had allowed the demolition of the house as part of a previous library building plan, announced that any new plan would need a new vote of approval — and this time it would not be granted.

The third property is the old school, a 1924 structure which Edgartown has been trying to find uses for, without success, ever since the new elementary school opened a decade ago. This building has been offered to other Island agencies for housing, for school district offices, for a community theatre, even for the Martha’s Vineyard Museum — and has found no takers.

It was easy to see, a year ago, that the building committee was divided over sites — one faction favoring the school, one favoring North Water Street. But then came a series of reversals.

In September, when consulting engineers announced that the old school could not practically be renovated as a library, the building committee voted to abandon that site and concentrate on North Water Street.

Then in December, after several efforts by the architects to fit a workable library plan into the current site, came the loss of permission to tear down the Warren House. This left the building committee considering designs which could comfortably accommodate either a good library on North Water Street or decent public parking space — but not both.

This was the library building committee’s moment to take a deep breath, at the eleventh hour, and to embrace the only option that seemed likely to win state support: Knock down the old school and instruct the architects to design, from a blank sheet of paper, a library to meet the needs of the people of Edgartown.

Working heroically through January, the building committee did more than prepare a grant application for this plan — they prepared a grant application that is complete, polished and persuasive.

Whether the state awards Edgartown the $5.6 million it’s requesting, we won’t know until June. Meanwhile, voters are being asked at town meeting this Tuesday to accept that money if it’s forthcoming.

Voting yes on Article 50 doesn’t mean Edgartown will build a new library, and it doesn’t incur a penny of cost. The town’s share of any project will have to be funded by a bond issue, which means another meeting and another public discussion.

A no vote on Tuesday, however, does have an immediate effect. It kills the project, ending the state’s consideration of Edgartown’s grant request.

Remember, it’s only an accident of history that Massachusetts, in this moment of financial stringency, has any money to help towns build libraries. It’s because two dozen towns received funding in an earlier grant round, but were unable to build their libraries and had to give their money back.

One of them was Edgartown.