Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Let's Have a Great Library!

Most of us can point to a teacher who made a significant impact on us in our youth. These impacts can vary – exciting intellectual curiosity, building character, identifying and nurturing talents, or helping overcome deficiencies.

I point to Alice Sleight.

Alice Corning Hume Sleight, who passed away last year at the age of 98, was not a teacher, however. Or perhaps I should say she was not a schoolteacher. She was head librarian at the Peavey Memorial Library in Eastport Maine for 24 years. And from the 5th grade through the beginning of High School she taught me the love of books and the knowledge that could be found in them. I spent many hours in the reading room of the library under her watchful eye.

If you were any kind of serious youthful reader, Mrs. Sleight knew who you were. She knew what you liked to read, what you were able to read, what you had read already, and what you should read next. When returning a book recommended by Alice Sleight, it was not permissible to slip the book into the return box. You were expected to return the book to her, at which point the oral report was expected, along with intelligent responses to her probing questions. This was her way of obtaining book reviews of her recommendations, at the same time as she was confirming the appropriateness of her selection for the reader. In the summer between 7th and 8th grade she handed me_Lord of the Flies_and asked me to read it. The book had been added to the High School reading list and she was anxious to get my reaction to it. She was concerned that the theme of youthful descent into barbarism resulting from the absence of the civilizing constraints of a social structure might be too disturbing to the halcyon childhood of her charges. My enthusiastic report on the book seemed to calm her fears.

So you see, I like librarians, and libraries. We have a great librarian in Phil McNulty. But we don’t yet have a great library. We have an architecturally appealing structure built in 1904, with an architecturally unappealing addition from the 1950’s, on a plot of land donated for the purpose by 26 Milton citizens 103 years ago. The structure is not large enough for the 100,000 books it contains today, let alone for the number it ought to have. The physical structure is in decline. Roof leaks have damaged areas of the library. Brick and stone need substantial repair. Every system in the building is deficient and needs replacement. Residents with physical disabilities have limited or no access to parts or all of the library. There is a lack of office space for the staff, meeting rooms for the public, and areas dedicated to pre-school and children’s reading.

Recognizing the need for more and better space the Library Trustees proposed the construction of a new library at a different location almost exactly 10 years ago. The proposal was defeated. Most observers ascribed the defeat to the planned relocation of the library and abandonment of the current structure, and not to the perceived need to do something with the library. Beginning about 7 years ago the Library Trustees, staff and supporters embarked on a series of initiatives to achieve their goal of a great library for Milton. Their steadfast efforts exemplify the inventiveness and improvisation that define “yankee ingenuity”. Four initiatives deserve mention.

1. Land Swap

The land donated by generous citizens in 1902 was more than adequate for the needs of the library in the first part of the 20th century. By the end of that century, however, there was not enough land to expand and provide adequate parking for library patrons. This was part of the impetus for relocating the library. The Library Trustees, working with the Selectmen and the Town Meeting, engineered a land swap with their neighbor, and underwrote the cost, in excess of $300,000, of moving the neighbor’s house to the adjoining lot. Without this initial breakthrough, it is hard to imagine how a library expansion could occur.

2. Long Range Plan

A committee of Trustees, staff and citizens developed a long range plan for the library, both as a guide to future action, and as a prerequisite to applying for state grant funding. The plan is well done and can be read here:

3. Building Plan and State Grant

Working with the architectural firm of Schwarz-Silver and Associates a comprehensive plan for the expansion and renovation of the library was developed and submitted with the grant proposal to the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners. The proposal was one of 7 funded out of 40 applications and will result in the State paying 25% of the cost of the project. The building plan can be seen here:

4. Fundraising

To further lower the potential burden on Milton taxpayers the Library and its supporters have pursued an aggressive fundraising effort with a goal of raising 25% of the cost of the building program through private donations. To-date they are making very good progress.

It is difficult to imagine how much more we can ask of the Library or private citizens. Over a hundred years ago a partnership of private philanthropy and government built the library. It was seen as an important institution. Along with the Open Town Meeting, and universal free public education, public libraries were born in New England with the construction of the first in Peterborough, New Hampshire in 1833. It is no coincidence that those who believed in open government understood the importance of providing free access to education and to books. It is time for us to renew this partnership by voting as a town the 50% of the cost of the library building program not covered by State grants or private donations. At an average $50 per year for the average priced home ($484,400) over the 20 year period of the bond, this is a plan that any frugal Puritan would support.