Middlebury’s Ilsley library explores expansion
MIDDLEBURY — Ilsley Public Library trustees will soon hire an architect to size up space needs for the historic downtown Middlebury building en route to framing a capital improvement project that would be financed entirely with private donations.
“We still don’t have a concrete timeline,” Ilsley Public Library board President Maria Graham said of a possible expansion project. “We are trying to be methodical and careful.”
To that end, trustees have spent several years assessing deficiencies within the 92-year-old building, which was last expanded in 1988. An ad hoc building committee formed a year-and-a-half ago to look into the library’s space and programming needs. That panel went on hiatus after around six months to allow trustees to update the library’s strategic plan.
“In order to assess what the library’s needs were, we needed to have an up-to-date strategic plan,” said Ilsley Director Kevin Unrath. “The board worked on strategic planning so we really had a sense of where we would be going for the next several years to know what our building needs would be.”
Trustees drafted four guiding principles to shape the strategic plan: That the library serve as the town’s hub for reading, technology and community; that it be welcoming to all; that it enrich the lives of children and youth; and that it also enrich the lives of adults — seniors, in particular.
“We are currently using every space in the building,” Unrath said. “There is no space to expand (within the current footprint) and we can’t figure out, on our own, how we might better arrange the youth services area so that we can meet the demand that we see there.”
Library officials have developed a list of 27 specific deficiencies within the Ilsley they believe need to be corrected in order to deliver services that patrons have come to expect. The listed deficiencies include such things as lack of shelf space, inadequate space in youth services, and insufficient parking (see list in box at right).
Officials also said the bathrooms can be unsafe and can’t accommodate the traffic. They noted the two bathrooms on the lower level of the library serve one individual at a time and are lockable.
“Custodial staff regularly finds drug paraphernalia in addition to unsanitary conditions in these restrooms,” reads the trustees’ summary of building issues.
In addition to the aforementioned issues, library leaders noted an outdated elevator that needs to be replaced; security concerns caused by a four-story building with three separate entrances; and a sewer line that has backed up into the building twice in recent years, requiring a costly cleanup and “snaking” of the main line leading to the municipal sewer connection. All three of the Ilsley’s entrances involve stairs, which pose a hardship for frail and/or disabled patrons.
Unrath said the building committee will meet later this month to finalize a “request for qualifications” from architects interested in helping the library evaluate its space problems. The architect who ultimately lands the job will also be asked to create a preliminary design to meet those needs.
“Even though we have been talking about a building project, we have no idea what that means yet,” Graham said.
Once a design is in hand, Ilsley trustees will hire an outside firm to determine if enough funds could be raised from within the Middlebury area to bankroll an expansion project.
“Our goal is, as much as possible, to fund any renovation or expansion project (privately),” Unrath said, adding, “We wouldn’t want to go forward with detailed architectural plans if we find out there isn’t that enthusiasm to raise the funds we would need to bring this library to where we think it should be.”
Library capital projects in Vermont have typically been a public-private partnership, according to Unrath. For example, in 2011, Shoreham residents agreed to apply $90,000 in discretionary funds toward a $425,000 expansion and renovation project for the Platt Memorial Library. Bellows Falls used public and private funds to complete its $3 million library project.
The town of Manchester, on the other hand, built a $6 million library entirely through private donations.
During the fall of 2013, Ilsley trustees asked the selectboard about reserving 3,000 to 4,000 square feet of space for a children’s library within the new municipal building that is now being completed at 77 Main St. A majority of the selectboard declined the request, saying the library needs should be planned as a separate project and not in conjunction with a town office plan that was already substantially mapped out.
“I am afraid that by rushing this 3,000-or-so-square-foot children’s library, we might get it wrong,” Selectman Nick Artim said at the time.
While the Ilsley Library appears to be closely nestled between neighboring structures at its 75 Main St. location, Unrath said there is enough available land for an addition in multiple directions. He said the only area in which the library could not expand is toward Main Street and the building’s historic façade, for historic preservation reasons.
“Currently, there is a strong desire to keep the library where it is, because of its downtown location,” Unrath said. “I don’t think there is any thought at this point to moving off-site.”
Use of the Ilsley Library has ironically increased dramatically during this digital age. Unrath pointed to statistics showing that between 1994 and 2014, circulation at the library increased from 130,869 to 170,625; program attendance mushroomed from 5,996 to 18,266; items in the library collection grew from 49,445 to 78,487; and computer sessions in the facility went from zero to 32,851.
“We are the busiest library in the state, for our size, and we are in the top 3 percent for the nation for libraries with a similar size,” Unrath said.
He and other library officials are optimistic that there is good support within the Middlebury area for a bigger and better Ilsley building.
“We feel like a library is something that people can get excited about,” Unrath said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
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