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As book circulation falls, Westport Library evolves into hub for information, activities

Published 10:50 am, Friday, April 25, 2014

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  • View of the book section of the Westport Library from the second floor landing. Photo: Anne M. Amato / westport news
    View of the book section of the Westport Library from the second floor landing. Photo: Anne M. Amato

 

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On a recent rainy afternoon, the Westport Library was typically busy.

Some visitors were busy on the library computers; others just relaxed reading a book or doing a jigsaw puzzle, while a number of school-age children, on spring vacation, took part in a workshop.

"We came here today to get some books and movies," said Mimi Ahl. "We come here at least once a week, even more during the summer," she said as daughters, Indie, 8, and Storey, 6, played with computer tablets on a nearby table in the library Children's Room.

On the second floor, about a half dozen children were attending one of the April Vacation TinkerShop workshops the library sponsored, which also was observed as National Library Week. "We're making a fly catcher," said Nea Hochman, 9, working on the assembly with Evan Trock, also 9, both Coleytown Middle School students.

With activities ranging from movie screenings to tech help for personal electronic devices to workshops on topics like finding a job or college admission to concerts to literary discussion groups to a MakerSpace with a 3-D printer to art exhibits to celebrity and author lectures to a cafe to eclectic teen programs in gaming and zombies -- yes, zombies -- the Westport Library is definitely not your grandfather's library. Or even your older brother's library.

But despite the rapidly evolving role the Westport Library plays in the community, Maxine Bleiweis, the library director, says that its fundamental mission "hasn't changed at all." Bleiwes said the library's guiding principle has always been about learning and exchanging ideas, although the methods have changed over the years, especially of late as programs reflect the impact of the digital age. Among those features are ebooks, an online catalog and data bases, a free music service, and a movie and television streaming service for library card holders.

In fact, each day, more than 1,200 people visit the Westport Library for a variety of reasons. Some come to learn, some to socialize and others for the programs offered. They collaborate, congregate, invent, thrive and are inspired, Bleiweis said. Westport, she added, is the 134th in population among the communities in New England, but it has the eighth busiest library.

Among the patrons on a recent day was town resident Nick Lawrie, sitting at a table at one end of the library. He said he was attempting to write a new, personal blog while his two sons attended the workshop upstairs. "We love this library," said Lawrie, who moved to Westport from London about a year ago. He said he gets the library's newsletter and looks for events it sponsors, adding his family has participated in programs like the popular chess club, which now has groups for both youth and adult players.

Nearby, Christopher Reyes, 20, of Norwalk, was doing homework. The Norwalk Community College sophomore, majoring in business administration, said he spends at least four hours a day, four days a week at the library. Books and snacks were strewn on the table in front of him.

"This is a quiet area and I can get a lot done," he said. "There's no distractions here."

"I am very impressed with the ability of library staff, in general, to adjust to changes over the years," said Rachel Ranis, sociologist professor emeritus at Quinnipiac University in Hamden. "They do seem to have the ability to think ahead and take on challenges and that has a lot to do with their success," she added. "They are and have always been people-oriented."

Ranis said people still depend on the library for books, but there's much more. "It's a great social place and also a sheltered place where people can go and spend the day for whatever reason," she said.

Ranis said the library has become the hub of some communities. "People can take classes there, meet with friends and some even have art and other exhibits," she said. It's unique, she added because you don't need a membership or a library card, "all you need is a parking space."

Each year, the Westport Library offers more than 1,600 programs designed to appeal to people in all demographics. In less than a decade, the number of library programs increased by 83 percent and attendance has more than tripled, Bleiweis said.

That is a major reason why, despite steady declines in the library's book circulation -- a drop of more than 25,000 annually over the last decade -- library officials are moving ahead with plans for a 12,654-square-foot expansion to the 43,916-square-foot building, as well as some changes to the area landscaping and parking. The projected cost of the plan is $20-$25 million.

Although a formal expansion plan has yet to be proposed, a land-use report for the project was approved by the Planning and Zoning Commission in February, and the town this week opened bids from 15 firms vying to the construction manager.

An example of one of the library's newest -- and largest -- programs will take place Saturday when it hosts on Jesup Green the third Mini-MakerFaire -- an outgrowth of the worldwide "Maker Movement" that promotes "making" things of all sorts. The event will include items made at the library's MakerSpace, a high-tech workshop of sorts where David Levy, 10, a Coleytown Middle School fifth-grader, spent time recently. "I'm making a name plate on the 3-D printer," he said, taking time to give a little background on how the printer works. About 45 minutes later, Levy had a finished project that he was proud of.

The MakerSpace, inside a large open metal structure, features cutting-edge equipment, such as a MakerBot 3-D printer, that is used to imagine, design and make items.

Last September, the library won a major grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services in Washington, D.C., to enhance its year-old MakerSpace.

But not everyone is impressed by the MakerSpace. A patron, who did not want to be identified, called it a "waste of space."

On May 3, the library will sponsor a "TEDx: Retinkering Libraries" conference which will focus on changes taking place in a variety of disciplines. TED (an acronym for technology, entertainment and design) conference participants can listen to the ideas and determine how changes in these disciplines could affect the evolution of the library. The library program will include presentations by David Pogue of Yahoo on technology and architect Henry Myerberg on design.

The Westport Library was founded in 1886 by members of the Westport Reading Room and Library Association, according to the history on the library website.

There were 146 members that first year, who each paid a $1 membership fee. The total book circulation that year was 962 volumes.

On the 10th anniversary circulation was up to 1,513 volumes. At that time a building fund was established for a new library. In 1908, Morris Jesup offered to donate funds and a parcel of land on State Street for the new building.

With its book circulation down about 7 percent over the past 10 years as e-book downloads rise, Bleiweis was asked if library officials are considering cutting back on the number of book shelves so that more digital-related items can be installed.

The future plan, Bleiweis said, is to keep all of the library space flexible, so that as the needs change, features such as book shelves can be reconfigured. The same concept applies to meeting rooms, quiet rooms and collaborative spaces, she said.

"We continue to add to our digital collection, recently adding the streaming of films, TV shows, music and audiobooks and these have proven to be very popular," she said. "Patrons are asking for digital media and we are in the business of meeting the needs of our community."

In fact, according to a January 2014 Pew Research Center report, access to books, media, and quiet reading spaces top the list of favorite library services.

There are 12,055 adults in town with active library cards and 5,579 children have them. But it's not necessary to have a library card for most of its offerings.

Last year, 1,907 students were enrolled in the library's Summer Reading Club. The library also serves 53 book clubs.

Resident Janet Reynolds, who is a book club member, spent Tuesday afternoon reading her book club's recent selection, "How It All Began," by Penelope Lively.

"I came here not just to read the book, but to get out of the house," she said, sitting comfortably in a chair in the library's Great Hall. "I come here to read a couple of times a month. It's a nice, quiet place." She said the library has been helpful in supplying books for her club members. "There's 12 of us," she said.

While there are patrons of all ages, the library has seen an increase in the number of middle and high school students who have been drawn to activities like the MakerSpace and the events and programs facilitated by its teen librarian, Bleiweis said. "Children's programs are always robust and our summer programs draw more than 2,000 participants each year while adults flock to the speaker and author programs," she said.

"We have seen an interesting intergenerational interaction as the exchange of ideas and information occur as youngsters, as young as 10, help adults and seniors with technology and 3-D printing, and, in turn, the adults and seniors relate the stories of breakthrough technology of their time," she added.

Bleiweis said she finds it exciting to be living in a time when there are so many options, adding, "Who knows what the future will bring."

For more information about the Westport Library and its programs, visit its website at www.westportlibrary.org