Ilsley library seeks input on services, possible expansion

MIDDLEBURY — An ad hoc committee is now taking a close look at space needs within Middlebury’s increasingly cramped Ilsley Public Library, a review that might culminate in a proposal to renovate or expand the stately Main Street structure.
Use of the 15,000-square-foot Ilsley Library has been increasing in recent years even as the use of Kindles and online research become more prevalent. Circulation at the library has increased from 170,601 transactions in 2003, to 173,456 transactions in 2008, to 181,088 last year — a growth of 6 percent over the decade. Attendance at various on-site programs, ranging from children’s story hours to family genealogy research classes, has jumped from 6,013 visits in 2004 to 19,671 last year.
“This library is incredibly busy,” said Ilsley Library board member John Freidin, who chairs the recently formed Ilsley Public Library Building Committee. “There’s a whole slew of new functions that the library has assumed. It has become for many people in the community a place to gather. It is perhaps the only place in town where you can sit quietly alone, or with a couple of other people, and have a conversation, read, or play a game — and you don’t have to pay.”
Library Director Kevin Unrath said the library has had to double its number of children’s story hours to a total of four, in order to meet demand.
Ilsley ranks 59th busiest among the 1,400 public libraries in the United States having an annual budget of between $400,000 to $1 million, according to the national Library Journal. The journal includes such factors as circulation, population, and visits per capita.
“We are ranked the busiest library in Vermont in that ($400,000-$1 million budget) category,” Unrath said.
The original Ilsley Library building was erected in 1924. A small addition with an elevator was completed during the 1970s, and a major addition for stacks and program rooms was executed in 1988. That 1988 addition provided for the children’s library area, which is now at 95 percent capacity, according to Unrath.
“We feel we are at a point now where the addition has served its useful function and we’re running out of space for other things we’d like to do,” Unrath said.
The Middlebury selectboard last December declined a request from Ilsley officials that the design of the new town office building at 77 Main St. include 3,000 to 4,000 of additional square feet for a children’s library. But board members agreed the library’s space needs should be addressed, and appointed the seven-member library building committee that Freidin chairs.
“I feel the committee’s first responsibility is to have a thorough and inclusive set of processes to listen to the ideas, not just of the professionals and users, but of as many people in town as possible,” Freidin said.
To that end, the committee has already met with teens and tweens to get their feedback on the current state of the library and how it could be improved. They will also reach out to library staff, seniors, educators, students, local civic groups and other stakeholders through a series of public meetings during the coming months.
“We want to reach as many people as possible,” Freidin said.
Those who can’t come to the committee meetings will be able to weigh in on the library space issue through a recently drafted survey. The survey, which is available at the library and can be completed online at www.ilsleypubliclibrary.org/survey, asks respondents to rate current services at the facility and suggest ways in which offerings could be improved.
For example, one question invites people to rate, on a scale of 1 to 5 (with 5 being “excellent”), space availability within the Ilsley for adults, children, quiet study, group meetings, computer stations and Middlebury Community Television. Other questions seek ratings on the quality of space currently provided within the adults’ and children’s sections of the building. Respondents are also asked to write down specific spaces within the library they believe could be improved or better used.
Committee members will be visiting five communities that recently replaced or improved their respective libraries. Those libraries are in Essex Junction, Montpelier, Manchester, Bellows Falls and Hanover, N.H. Manchester is currently building a new, $6 million library.
Information gleaned from the visits, survey and public meetings will assist the library building committee as it fulfills its charge. That charge in part calls for potential solutions to the Ilsley’s space needs, and “each solution should include a rough estimate of cost, and preliminary architectural sketch.”
Freidin hopes the panel will be in a position by the end of this year to talk to an architect about possible project design(s). Then again, the committee could complete its study without recommending a capital project.
Unrath said an addition could not be built onto the front façade of the historic Ilsley building. But the library owns some property to the north and behind the structure that could be built upon, according to Unrath.
The committee will next meet on Monday, Sept. 29, at 5 p.m., at the library.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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