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Residents attend forum to discuss New Canaan Library's future

Published 6:46 pm, Wednesday, October 20, 2010
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New Canaan residents packed into the library's Lamb Room Oct. 17 for a special public forum about the 21st Century New Canaan Library initiative.

After a short presentation by library Director Alice Knapp, residents voiced their opinions regarded a possible new library or upgraded facility.

Knapp discussed libraries' ever-changing role in communities across the globe as well as in New Canaan.

"Libraries are being used differently today," she said, adding that rather than simply being a book repository of books, libraries served as more of a "knowledge exchange center."

Additionally, New Canaan's library usage has seen an increase over the last several years. According to the library's own research, New Canaan "residents are checking out materials five times more than the average American." She reiterated that the balance will be in how they plan to provide traditional library services alongside the new needs.

In terms of the actual facility, Knapp mentioned that simple maintenance costs including mandatory health and safety issues cost $150,000 a year on the "aging building." That cost does not include expanding the library or any other additional expenditure. She said the facility is in need of a significant upgrade to accommodate the growing need of the library.

After the presentation, the floor was opened up for public comments. The forum was moderated by Alice Knapp, Board of Trustees President Kara Stevenson, board member Jeff Williams and board member Elizabeth Ellsworth.

The main subjects of discussion, among the more than 45 people in attendance, were the future of library usage, paying for a new facility or renovations and, perhaps most importantly, why New Canaan might need a new library. Audience emotions ranged from concern and confusion for the logistics of a potential project to enthusiasm and determination for a brand new facility.

Diane Blasco proposed a suggestion of having the library in multiple locations around town.

"Can't we fund an annex?" she asked. "Why does it have to be in one location?"

Knapp said additional space would prove fairly costly, especially when paired with the already high maintenance costs. They would need to hire more staff in that scenario as well.

Bill Hines questioned how the library initiative fit in with the Long Range Planning Committee.

"I admit to being utterly confused," he said. After mentioning the conceptualization of the library on Park Street and hearing about four other sites, he said, "I don't know where we are. What's going on?"

Williams responded, saying "Park Street was just a concept and that is all. Park is one of several locations we are exploring."

He added that board members went to the town seeking a collaborative process and that the LRPC will get back to them on locations that are suitable from its own planning. At the same time, Williams said library board members are conducting their own research, and that the "two initiatives will come together" at some point down the road.

Terry Spring also asked whether the library board was seeking a new facility or renovating the existing building.

"Are you set on this location with a brand new building?" she asked. "Must the building be brand new or is there a possibility for renovation?"

Williams said renovations are always a possibility.

"We are looking for the optimal solution," he said, adding that the majority of their research and needs have pointed them "away from renovations."

From that point on, the forum took a turn from people questioning and opposing a brand new library facility to support for the new initiative.

Nancy Harper said she was surprised at the lack of support for a new facility.

"I'm shocked. I haven't heard anything positive about a new library. Where is all this fear coming from? We need a new library." After mentioning libraries in other towns she suggested building something "charming" to match the character of New Canaan.

Stan Russ supported her sentiments.

"This is a time for bold action, not timidity."

Fred Chang took some time to comment on the financial status of the initiative.

"It struck me that you have overwhelmingly research the qualitative aspect of the project," he said. "It's all about the money. How will it impact our pocketbook?"

Williams said the board is in the process putting together the financial data and research.

Overall, the forum provided ample input from New Canaan on both sides regarding the library's new initiative. The next big item on the agenda will be focus groups to be held in November.

For more information on how to sign up for the focus groups, contact the library.