Renovations expand library amenities, mission
WESTPORT — A recent Friday afternoon found Natasha Johnson doing homework at the Westport Library with a friend.
“Last time we came here we got yelled at for talking,” said the Staples High School 10th-grader, who often goes to the library to work. “When you’re working with somebody, you need to talk.”
Johnson’s situation is one of the motivating reasons behind the $20 million Transformation Project underway to reconfigure the library without changing its footprint. In the current setup, people who wanted to study quietly and those who needed to collaborate had to share the same space.
“You had a friction there and we needed to separate that,” Westport Library Executive Director Bill Harmer said. “We still need a quiet space for people to do serious work in, but as you know, people are also learning noisy now, too.”
The renovated library, set for completion in the spring of 2019, will feature six times more small study and large conference rooms. Previously, the main hall held stacks and the lower level had assembly space, but that is set to change.
“What we’re proposing to do is flip that upside down,” Harmer said, explaining the stacks need to be in a more contained and quiet space, where people can research and study without disturbance, whereas the assembly space demands a more open, airy and grand environment.
In general, the forthcoming changes at Westport’s library mirror the evolving role of libraries in society, Harmer said.
“The knowledge transfer isn’t all about the books to the individual. Now it’s about the the knowledge transfer between people, too. That’s why these shared and collaborative spaces are so important,” he said. “People don’t just come to the library as an errand anymore. It’s now a destination.”
According to Harmer, Westport is the sixth- or seventh-busiest library in New England and known for being innovative. The renovated library will feature increased seating and work space on the upper balcony, expanded views of the Saugatuck River, power outlets in the central gathering space, a larger cafe and a new stage with theater-quality sound and lighting, as well as a giant LED screen.
“We can put up almost a whole symphony orchestra on that stage,” Harmer said. “We can do theater productions, drama, along with the traditional things that libraries do, like author events and speakers.”
The library’s MakerSpace is also getting an upgrade. The dedicated space for creation, collaboration, innovation and entrepreneurship will be enlarged and expanded.
“It’s not just about tinkering around with 3D printers or robots or coding,” Harmer said. “Making is so much more than that, so in this space there will be power tools; there’ll be sewing machines; there’ll even be a small kiln in there.”
A recording studio and secured after-hours space will also find a home in the new library.
“We could potentially be the first public library in the country to be available 24/7 to the community,” Harmer said.
Because the renovation is being completed level by level, the library will remain open throughout the duration of the construction period, which Harmer said allows for cost savings.
The $20 million price tag is being met with a $5 million contribution from the town and a $1 million construction grant from the state, with the remaining money coming from local donors. As of now, only $12 million has been donated, leaving the project $2 million short of the total needed, but Harmer said he is not worried.
“We think we can achieve that goal by the end of the fiscal year, which will be in June,” he said. “The fundraising has been very steady.”
Although construction began in September, Harmer said a library renovation project has been in the works for much longer.
“Ten years the library has been working on this project to transform its space. As you can see, it’s happening,” he said.