Residents to shape future of Ilsley Library

MIDDLEBURY — Ilsley Public Library officials recently spent five months asking Middlebury residents what kind of services they expect from their local library.
Now everyone gets to hear the results, which will be delivered at two public meetings at the Ilsley Library. The first is slated for Monday, Feb. 25, at 5:30 p.m.; the second will take place Wednesday, Feb. 27, at 12:30 p.m.
The results are the payoff for the so-called “Tell Me Tour,” a series of 14 focus groups that Ilsley officials convened this past year to ask Middlebury area residents how the library could match their expectations and fulfill their greater aspirations for the community.
Ilsley Library Director Dana Hart took notes throughout the process and agreed to an early release of some of her focus-group findings in the Independent to stimulate interest in the Feb. 25 and Feb. 27 meetings.
“I learned so much about the community,” she said. “It was eye-opening in so many ways.”
The Ilsley’s future has been a hot topic for the past three years while supporters — with the aid of consultants, architects and community feedback — developed a renovation and expansion project for the 95-year-old library building at 75 Main St.
That $9.6 million plan has been tabled while library officials solicit more local input on what they’d like their library to do for them. Planners’ ultimate goal is to match the community’s library goals with a capital project costing less than $9.6 million.
The Tell Me Tour has revealed, among other things, that Middlebury-area residents value a community that is:
•  Welcoming, open, inclusive and friendly.
•  Socially, culturally and economically diverse.
•  Safe.
•  Encourages lifelong learning.
•  Is environmentally sensitive.
The more than 100 people who provided Tell Me Tour feedback also advocated for a vibrant downtown library offering more opportunities for residents to connect with one another.
Ilsley library could help energize the downtown by offering occasional performances and exhibitions and serving as a “welcome center” with information for new residents and tourists, according to Tell Me Tour results.
Hart also heard loud and clear that residents want more spaces for planned meetings and for what she called “spontaneous” and “serendipitous” encounters. She noted the library has become more than a just a place where folks check out books and linger over literature; it has become a locale where people meet other people — whether it be on purpose or by accident.
“A lot of people see the library as a community setting,” Hart said.
And that’s prompting Hart and her colleagues to rethink the notion of a library as a place for study or quiet contemplation. If there’s a consensus that the library should foster such conversation, it could result in a lobby set up with spaces conducive for chats, Hart said.
Those who provided feedback also asked that the library provide more resources and space for teens and tweens, and that it recognize the needs of the homeless. The library is one of the few public, climate-controlled buildings where people can hang out for free. As such, it can be a go-to place — particularly during the winter — with folks who have nowhere else to go.
Hart said the Ilsley already has a good relationship with the Charter House Coalition, a Middlebury nonprofit that provides food and shelter to those in need. Library officials are also trained to let people know where they can access vital services, such as food and medical care. The library, Hart and Tell Me Tour respondents reasoned, could do more to connect people with training materials and information to find employment and thus a better standard of living.
A number of people already use the library regularly as an adjunct workplace, according to Hart. The building is equipped with a strong Wi-Fi system and a quiet atmosphere that’s attracting folks who don’t have the same atmosphere at home and who don’t want to pay for an office.
Library trustees are looking forward to presenting the Tell Me Tour findings next week. Officials will then determine how to incorporate the community’s wants into an Ilsley building that could undergo major changes within a few years. And residents can have an impact on those building changes during a second “Tell Me Tour” this spring.
“Our new outreach campaign will residents what they want their library to look like,” Hart said. “What scale of project is palatable?”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]

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