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Middlebury readies plan to upgrade its library: More space and repairs on the docket

MIDDLEBURY — After three years of public surveys, studies, brainstorming and tours of other facilities, the Ilsley Library Building Committee is closing in on a preferred plan and cost estimate for renovating and expanding Middlebury’s historic public library.
The seven-person panel met on Jan. 26 with its architect, Montpelier-based Gossens Bachman, to continue crafting a project to address more than two dozen deficiencies identified within the 93-year-old library building, shortcomings that range from inadequate space for programs to the complete lack of a ventilation system.
Project planners have estimated the current 18,240-square-foot library could use an additional 6,600 square feet of space to better serve library patrons ranging from kids to seniors.
“A public library is a metaphor of a town,” committee Chairman John Freidin said of the importance of an improvement project. “The degree to which its programs, facilities, accessibility, collections, instruction and staff meet the needs of its community is essential to the vigor of that community and plays a large part in its ability to attract and retain businesses and families.”
Committee members last week reached consensus on several priorities for the project, including:
•  Giving the library a single access and exit, fronting Main Street. The public can currently get into the library at three locations, including through a side door adjacent to the new municipal building, through a door to the Community Room in the back and through the stone steps that empty onto Main Street. Officials concede those steps aren’t accessible to all, so the architect is designing an at-grade entrance that will serve all visitors at Main Street.
“We would have the ability to observe all people coming in and out of the building, which we currently can’t do,” Freidin said of the current, triple access points.
He noted the side entrance is not visible to library officials working the front desk, and it empties into the children’s section.
“It puts children at an undesirable risk,” Freidin said. “The current system also allows people to misbehave in the bathroom.”
•  Moving the children’s library from the basement into a new addition, which is likely to be oriented toward the rear parking lot.
•  Moving the Middlebury Community Television studio and offices from the top floor into the basement. The library’s digital media lab and other technical facilities would also be consolidated in the basement, according to Ilsley Executive Director Kevin Unrath.
•  Removing the “elevator addition” that was built onto the library during the 1970s. This would pave the way for the library to install a new elevator at a more central location, and at the same time allow workers to restore the building to its original, 1923 footprint, according to Unrath.
•  Relocating staff work areas from behind the circulation desk, and opening those spots up to library patrons. Officials also want a centrally located stairway to the upper floors.
An estimator is slated to come to the library within a few weeks to assign a rough price tag to the proposed building improvements, according to Unrath. Freidin hopes to have those numbers in hand by the end of March. The committee will then present project options and related costs to Ilsley Library trustees and the Middlebury selectboard.
While library officials don’t yet have a ballpark price for the library project, they believe it will cost around $750,000 just to bring the original, 1923 building back up to snuff. That work would include plumbing repairs and digging around the building to fix leaks that have led to moisture permeating the structure during recent years.
Freidin said it’s too soon to spell out the timeline for a project.
“I don’t think we feel pressure to have (the work) done by a fixed date,” Freidin said, though his personal preference would be to see a project completed as soon as possible.
Once town and library officials have agreed upon a specific building project, they’ll sort out the best way to fund it. Unrath pointed to four possible financing options: Private fundraising, grants, bonding, and raising other revenues by offering Ilsley services to other Addison County communities.
Library officials said they are committed to launching a capital campaign, to which businesses and individuals will be asked to contribute. Unrath said there will likely be some grant money available for historic preservation and cultural aspects of the project. As for expanding the Ilsley’s customer base, he cited the example of the Bixby Library in Vergennes, which also serves the neighboring towns of Waltham, Ferrisburgh, Panton and Addison. Those towns each make annual per capita contributions to the Bixby to allow their citizens to use that facility.
The building committee has already put a lot of research into the Ilsley’s shortcomings and needs. In addition to holding monthly meetings, the panel has hosted open houses, conducted a community survey that drew 300 responses, hired a consultant to help with project planning, and toured the recently renovated libraries in Essex Junction, Montpelier, Manchester, Rockingham and Hanover.
Committee members learned, among other things, that Middlebury has one of the most actively used public libraries in Vermont. Compared to all Vermont libraries with similar budgets, Isley ranks first in visits, circulation, program attendance and public use of on-site Internet computers.
Those numbers are expected to get even higher in the future.
“We certainly anticipate more people using this building once it’s made more functional and inviting,” Freidin said.
Residents can follow the progress of the Ilsley’s improvements plans in the pages of the Independent and at www.ilsleypubliclibrary.org. Building committee members are willing to make presentations to local groups. To schedule such an event, call the library at 388-4095.
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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