We read with renewed interest of the growth in use at Middlebury’s Ilsley Library as stated in a letter to the editor by library Director Kevin Unrath in today’s Addison Independent. The growth is impressive: In short, there are more articles being checked out and more people passing through the library’s doors than at any time in the recent past. Youth activities have also spiked, which is encouraging in this age of digital toys. (See his letter on Page 7.)
Much of the growth, it turns out, has come because of expanded digital services at the library. The library is now in the business of providing computers for people to use, as well as internet hook-ups for those who want to bring in their own laptops and hitch onto the library’s high-speed services. The library also hosts computer camps for kids, teen activities, and many other services for children throughout the summer.
That’s fantastic. In this age of two-income worker families, the need to provide services to youth in the summer is at a high, and educational programs at the town library are a great way to meet that need.
Finding the space to meet those needs, however, does not have to be confined to one concept: building a bigger facility at an ever-higher taxpayer expense. New ideas should be explored. Partnering with others is one way to gain access to space without busting the budget. For example, the Mary Hogan Elementary School in Middlebury sits very much underused all summer. Perhaps, the library could move its summer programs into that largely idle space, or use space at any of the other existing school buildings if, at times, that is a better option.
As for the need for more public meeting space, siting the new town hall adjacent to the library would allow for more creative shared uses between the two buildings and their constituencies. Shared restrooms, shared meeting rooms, shared conference rooms all become a possibility — at great future saving, and better efficiency, for the taxpayer.
Parking is the most troubling issue, but this is not just a library issue, it’s a town issue. The parking lot behind the library is not dedicated to library patrons. It’s a municipal lot meant to serve downtown restaurants, downtown professionals, downtown residents, retailers, art galleries, the existing town hall and the library. It’s a town problem, and one the town has been trying to address for decades. With these new projects in the works, it’s a problem that’s more likely than ever before to get the attention it deserves.
Indeed, for every concern the library and its patrons have about the proposed town hall being located beside it, there is a rational counter-argument that the library and the community will be better off after the new town hall is built.
Moreover, let’s pause for a moment and look at critical need. The municipal building is inefficient and very costly to operate and maintain. It’s also an eyesore and a public embarrassment that, admittedly, most of us have gotten used to and largely ignore. But look at it. Really look at it. It’s in terrible shape. As town facilities go, it is the town’s most critical problem to address today. By comparison, the Ilsley is akin to Trump Towers.
That said, resolving the town hall problem has to be done before addressing Ilsley’s concerns (in 2007, the library suggested it needed 6,000 more square feet of space), and refiguring out a viable way to pay for a new town hall is what the town selectboard and its appointed committees spent the past 18 months doing. The plan finally adopted (building the town hall on the Osborne site) came after a year-long attempt to find ways to finance a new town hall on the existing site failed.
If the proposed plan is adopted, library patrons and its supporters will benefit in the longer-term for one obvious reason: because the college has agreed to fund most of the cost, taxpayers will be incurring a relatively small debt. The less debt, and the faster other community debt is repaid, the more tax capacity the town has for other municipal concerns — like expanding services at the library. In the meantime, for all the growth at the library on the digital front, there are other private concerns that perhaps could benefit by hosting a slice of the pie, such as other Internet cafes for adult users if the need exists. If the need doesn’t exist, perhaps this service is really just providing a convenience — and that’s another issue altogether.
We applaud Ilsley’s increase in traffic and encourage its expansion of programs that meet essential community needs, but we also encourage library directors and board members to imagine creative ways to meet those space needs. Building bigger monuments is always the easiest approach, but in this age of energy-efficiency and where cost-effectiveness is at the top of our minds, perhaps there are ways to use existing facilities to achieve those expanding needs. It’s more work, but in the end it could create even better programs.
Angelo S. Lynn