Library plans to keep pace with its changing role
Ruth Kelley became a proud owner of a New Canaan Library card as a 5-year-old girl. She spent her first days in the still-standing 1913 building rummaging through children's literature. Today, Kelley, a lifelong New Canaanite and retiree, heads a Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program in the same facility.
"The library has changed tremendously," she said. "It's no longer a place where you come in and you have to keep a soft voice. The librarians aren't telling you, `No talking in the library,' as you walk in. It's a lot of what a library once was, but it's more. It's a gathering space, too."
Patrons of the town's 97-year-old library have grown into 21st century users. For them, the library is no longer simply a house for quiet reading of books on shelves. It's a portal to the Internet, a DVD collection, computer literacy education programs and art exhibitions. And during the March nor'easter, many residents learned it's literally a solace from the storm.
But the library lags behind as a 20th century facility and it's losing pace as user expectations are changing, according to Library Board President Karen Stevenson.
Over the last decade, library board members have schemed to solve an ongoing dilemma: how to keep up with a rising and diversifying demand for services in an aging, outdated facility. This year, the board hopes to craft, settle and embark on a solution, which Stevenson said "is looking like it's going to be" a new building in a new space.
The shift is far-reaching. Nationally, library users are demanding facilities that are increasingly digital, collaborative and audience-driven, according to the Institute of Museum and Library Services. A competitive workforce, the evolution of the global economy and the need for 21st century work skills are the forces of the shift, according to research gathered by the Institute.
Locally, the demand for a different kind of library is particularly strong because of New Canaanites' staggering rate of utilization. More than 82 percent of town residents carry a library card, and each visits the facility an average of 24 times per year -- that frequency is almost five times greater than the national average.
"It's clear that we need to do something," Stevenson said. "We have to start planning now because it will take five years to do anything. If we aren't having this conversation as a community now, people might start going [to libraries in other towns]."
Computer use at the New Canaan Library increased by 19 percent in the last five years, according to Library Director Alice Knapp. But the number of machines open to the public has not followed suit. Three years ago, the library's computer stock grew by two, bringing the grand total to 36 -- eight of which are reserved for children, she said. And when the library offers any computer literacy program, patrons working on any machine in the largest bank of computers are kicked off for the duration of the class.
Most of the computers have a one-hour time limit, and often patrons must wait to use one, Knapp said.
"Time limits on computers is really just saying that you don't have enough computers," she said. "In an ideal environment, you would have a significantly larger number of computers available so that maybe in peak time there is a wait and time limits would be enforced, but the majority of the time people can come in and sit down and use a computer without having to watch the clock."
The children's corner has not kept pace with library best practices, either, Knapp said.
Many 21st century libraries include crawling space spruced with interactive games for toddler readers. It's another addition she said she would like to see in a new town library.
Stevenson envisions the 21st century version of New Canaan's library to include stilted boxes as tall as toddlers filled with picture books displayed by cover rather than by spine.
"The idea is so they can easily flip through, see the cover illustration and say, `Oh, that's trucks,' and take it out," Stevenson said.
Knapp added, "We want kids to have access to them, but we also want to keep them in order. So our mission is two-fold, but now one is overriding the other. The order is overriding the easy access, so we need to balance that."
The library also begs for improvement to keep up with the needs of the modern teen, according to Knapp.
"How great is it that we have so many teens coming here after school wanting to use the library," she said. "We do welcome them as much as we can, but ultimately, they are being shushed.
"To have a space where they can talk and they can socialize with one another and still work on their homework -- because they have not been socializing, they have been working at school all day, and now they are doing both -- we could let them be kids and be silly while also allowing them to learn how to manage their time and get their work done. That would be fantastic and that's what we're striving for with a new facility."
But it's not just youth that are demanding an interactive area for group work and socialization. Library patrons nationwide are increasingly demanding that libraries fill the role of what Stevenson calls "a community living room."
Many modern libraries have an information commons, Knapp said. She describes the commons as a space where furniture is mobile. Here patrons can roll chairs around a laptop charging station or a table to comfortably conduct group work.
"The idea is to take the way libraries used to function as mainly a repository with a separate section for instruction and [bring] it together so you have access to both in one space," Knapp said.
Knapp keeps an wish list of features she thinks might be favorable to include in New Canaan's new, 21st century library. A public fax machine, a living room environment, a cafe, integration of indoor and outdoor space, more meeting rooms and small private work stations, tiered auditorium seating and eco-friendly architecture are among the features that fill her mind when she envisions an ideal facility for New Canaan. But for now, the only must-have is that town's new intellectual center is that it remain downtown.
Stevenson agrees: "It's not about bigger; it's about reconfigurable space. We're not talking big and grand; we're talking functional."