Out of the Woods: Keep 'Library Lane' name alive in downtown plan
Published 5:58 am, Thursday, March 12, 2015
While a proposal to build a new street called "Library Lane" as part of the town's master plan was postponed by the Downtown Steering Committee last week, there is something sentimental and historical about this title that I find appealing. "Library Lane" has a nice ring to it.
Perhaps, it is a reminder of setting the table with the poise and purpose of what was once called "Library Lane" dinnerware from Bloomingdale's of New York, in classical, colorful, circular patterns.
A major renovation of the library is pending, but the steering committee voted to put the road on the back burner and reclassified it as a mid-term project. The road would run alongside the eastern flank of the library building.
The Westport Library has been cited as one of the best and most creative in the country. Under the dynamic leadership of executive director Maxine Bleiweis for the past 18 years, it has set a number of records for books loaned, people who hold memberships, children's events, community events, and general support in community emergencies such as snowstorms and power outages.
Moreover, it has become a cultural, social, and learning center -- thanks to Bleiweis' ability to attract top-notch writers as speakers and nationally-known celebrities to attend public sessions. In short, she has managed to put Westport on the national map as a cultural destination in America and for that she deserves enormous credit as she retires this June.
For myself, as a long timewriter of this column (since 1973) and author, I am personally grateful to Maxine and her superb staff -- especially to former reference librarians Marta Campbell and Nancy Kuhn Clark -- whose dedicated research contributed enormously to my books, including one on Westport's history.
Our library, in its various forms and locations, has long been one of the major building blocks of our tightly-knit community. It is still the intellectual meeting place that binds us all together in spirit and in mind. It offers, as Joanne Woodward succinctly put it, "a special sense of place."
From the outset, it represented a milestone in our history -- and still does. The Westport Public Library was established on Feb. 4, 1886, by members of the Westport Reading Room and Library Association.
Morris Ketchum Jesup, born in 1830 to a country doctor, amassed a fortune in the railroad business and became the benefactor of the library, donating the land and $5,000 for the building in April 1908. The Westport Public Library was completed at a cost of $7,500 and dedicated to the custody of the Westport Library Association by Jesup's wife, following the wishes of her husband, who died four months before the library opened.
In June 1984, plans were announced to build a new library on a site adjacent to Jesup Green on the Saugatuck River. Considerable discussion took place about how to raise the money for the new library on the proposed site, a former landfill, according to notes in my book. A referendum was approved and the new library was built for $4.6 million and opened on Labor Day 1986.
By the year 2000, the library was the second busiest in the state in terms of circulation per capita, averaging 1,200 visitors a day. Embracing a trend of expanding the role of libraries, a MakerSpace was opened n 2012, a structure with 3D printers and other told for inventions and new technologies. The name of the library was officially changed to the Westport Library. In 2013, the library received a $246,545 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services for the enhancement of the makerspace. In 2014, the library became the first one in the nation to use humanoid robots to teach computer programming.
With innovations gearing up almost every month, there may be no limitation on the library's future in terms of stretching the limits into outer space.
Who knows, perhaps Maxine's replacement down the road will announce that a Staples High School senior has been accepted for training on an official NASA trip to the moon. Even JFK could not have imagined that!
But I'll bet my friend and colleague Dan Woog can. He will no doubt sign up to be the official coach/counselor on that history-making journey.
Woody Klein is a Westport writer, and his "Out of the Woods" appears every other Friday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.