Michael Borenstein/The Middlebury Campus
MIDDLEBURY – Over the past five months Dana Hart, the new director of the Ilsley Public Library, met with 14 focus groups on a “Tell Me!” tour to explore various ways Ilsley can better meet the needs of the Middlebury community. She introduced some of her findings at an event at the library on Wednesday.
Hart outlined five separate goals that align with the aspirations of the focus group participants’ communities. These goals include building a vibrant downtown, creating intergenerational gatherings, filling in the gaps for underserved populations, making Middlebury more affordable and increasing connections.
In pursuit of these goals, Ilsley plans to expand on the programs it already offers. The library will focus on adding new performances and cultural experiences as well as increasing accessibility for non-residents. Participants at the meeting expressed concern that the library neglected to properly inform people from surrounding towns of important events and should focus on reaching out to other Front Porch Forums and increasing the promotional aspect of library events. “I didn’t even know these focus groups were happening,” said one resident, “but if I had, I would have come.” Hart noted that other participants of the focus group shared similar concerns. He committed to broadening the library’s marketing in the hopes of making Middlebury a hub for people in the surrounding areas who might come for events at the library and then spend time in town.
The library is already a prominent feature of downtown Middlebury. Last year, it served over 168,000 patrons from a variety of demographics. Residents explained that they “always bring grandkids to the library,” but also complained that they “sometimes forget we live in a college town — I never see any college kids!” However, the library will now be consciously targeting college students, 20- and 30-year-olds, in an effort to reach all members of the community effectively. One of the strategies for doing so is to create space for spontaneous gathering. With the closing of Carol’s and a lack of other study spots for students off-campus, the library could prove a useful alternative for those who want to get off campus but don’t necessarily want to go too far. Hart spoke of wanting “the library to become a hearth, a gathering place for people to come and work and connect with the community.”
Hart is also hoping to provide a place at the library for teens. A visit to the Addison County Teen Center revealed that many teens who do not participate in sports hoped the library could offer programs and opportunities for them to connect with others their age.
The civic-minded purpose of the library plays well into its pursuit of making Middlebury more affordable. The library will be starting its homelessness services, early job training opportunities and childhood literacy programs in the hopes of helping people who might not otherwise be reached by such services. They are also diversifying their items in circulation beyond books and videos to include a projector, membership cards to the Maker Space at Hannaford Career Center, snowshoes, a telescope and ukuleles. They are also looking to include tools and cooking equipment.
“If you’re cooking Thanksgiving dinner, it would be helpful to be able to check out a huge pot rather than pay for one,” Hart said, noting that the library can provide free resources for people that might otherwise be unavailable. With this expanded collection of items, the library hopes to remove some costs that families may encounter and help alleviate the financial burdens some residents may feel.
Another goal of the Tell Me! Tour was to clearly identify the community’s needs and demands for the library’s physical space, including discussion of possible renovations and updates to the library’s building. The Library Building Committee, formed by the Middlebury Selectboard in 2014, hired Gossens-Bachman, an international architecture firm to pitch a design for the new library. They received pushback, however, because residents felt they had not been included enough in the process and balked at the nearly $10 million price tag. But the library still hopes to renovate the building at some point, and many of the participants at the presentation last Wednesday expressed interest in playing active roles in the renovation. The design and building process would likely take longer to implement than many of the other planned programs, but could provide enormous benefits.
Although the Tell Me! Tour is over, the iterative process of collaboration between library and community continues. The library will be changing, updating and expanding, but one thing will remain the same: it will always be a place for everyone.