Maxine Bleiweis – May 8, 2014

Maxine Bleiweis, Director of the Westport Library since 1998 and recognized by the Connecticut Library Association as Outstanding Librarian in 2011, spoke on the radical redefining of the role of the library after the advent of the internet and the rebuilding plan to create a new Westport Library for the information age.

In Mike Guthman’s introductory comments, he noted that Ms. Bleiweis and Google arrived in Westport at about the same time and the library has not been the same since. Libraries are centers of learning, and the learning process has changed with the development of the internet, Google, smart phones and ipads. The library now has tech help available to assist people with the devices they bring to the library. The library hosts over 1,400 events per year and is the eighth busiest library in the state.

Ms. Bleiweis began with the comment that the library is no longer simply a place for research, but a focus for the community to learn, share, discuss and create. One idea she came with was the Library Café, in order to invite people to come in and stay. As for tech support, everyone needs a 12-year old to lead one through the tech maze. The library has 3-D printing – a hands-on participatory learning process. People come in to create prototypes for new products or just to make stuff on the library’s four 3-D printers. Westport is a community that prides itself on its brainpower, and the library is the center of that brainpower.

Early in the 20th century, Ms. Bleiweis continued, Morris Jesup was an early leader to create an adequate library in Westport. He gave the community $5,000, which the community matched, to build a library in 1908 on the north side of the Post Road, near where Starbucks is. Ted Diamond, Leonard Everett Fisher and others were instrumental in the construction of the current library, which opened in 1986. With the subsequent development of Google, the iphone, the Kindle and Wikipedia, we are now reading and doing research in all sorts of ways not envisioned when the library was built.

Libraries today are oases for learning and for accessing, sharing and manipulating information. Ms. Bleiweis said that the current library is in many ways inadequate to meet these new needs. The largest space in the library, the stacks, is the least used. The domed ceiling reflects noise and disrupts conversations and discussion. Plumbing, ventilation and other infrastructure are outmoded. The staff must constantly redirect people to awkward locations to have meetings and discussions. Spaces are overcrowded. Electrical outlets are too few. She said that they turn away 1,000 people a month because they don’t have the required space. There are safety issues – sight lines are blocked, leaving “dead” spaces and ways to get into the library unseen.

So what do we need to do? Ms. Bleiweis commented that there are models, a cross between MIT Media Labs, Chautauqua and the 92nd Street Y, for gathering, sharing and learning. We must draw people into an appealing central area that will be open to the river and the green. There will be a large auditorium that will seat up to 300 people, possibly with a garage-type door that will open to the outside. There will be flexible walls so that we can refigure space to meet variety of needs.  Stacks will be on wheels. There will be adequate electrical systems and outlets and updated technology.  The green will be enhanced for greater usage and integrated with the library.

 She said that the construction cost, including the cost for temporary space during construction, will be $25 million. In addition, once up and running, the library will cost 5% more to operate 35% more space. They are half way to their fundraising goal and expect to begin in 1½ years. Over 100 individuals and families have stepped up and committed that they want this to happen.

It is critical, Ms. Bleiweis concluded, that the library be the anchor for Westport’s downtown, particularly since the Y is leaving.

In the Q and A, Ms. Bleiweis made the following comments:

In response to a question as to what will be obsolete in the new library after ten years, she said that electricity is liable to become wireless, but, of course, we need those wires now. Green technology will change much.

The plans are the result of meetings with lots of focus groups and the input of architects attuned to the needs of the modern library. The design is not intended to meet the architect’s dream but to serve the needs of the community. There is art as well as science to planning a library.

The risk of storms and hurricanes to a waterside location have been considered. The library has fared well in the storms of recent years.

Control of ambient light in the new auditorium has also been considered. German technology seems the best. They are looking into smart glass that communicates with the lighting system to adjust to varying needs.

They do not intend to abandon the term ”library” for some other, such as “forum.” Rather, she said, we need to expand the definition of what a “library” is.

The library gets its share of business people. Information age entrepreneurs need space to do research, work, meet and discuss, and develop business plans.

Ms. Bleiweis feels optimistic about meeting their fund raising goal now that they have reached the halfway point That said, they remain diligent to find more economical ways to get things done.

Of their $5 million annual operating budget, 80% comes from the town and the rest from fund raising. The town contributes less to capital budgets. The library is a public/private partnership.

They are looking for a temporary central site and various satellite locations for the 2-year construction period.

Walls in the library will be moveable to create a flexible environment but not flimsy. The needs for privacy of groups using the premises should be met.