The James Blackstone Memorial Library is a jewel of the Branford community, a singular community resource which draws people of all ages together for learning, growing and sharing. The building is iconic and visually striking. Few communities in Connecticut, whether large or small, urban or rural, can boast of a place with both the small town charm and the big city services of the James Blackstone Memorial Library.
With programs designed for children, teens, families, seniors, job seekers, parents and students, it is hard to find any aspect of Branford life that is not enhanced by the presence of the Blackstone Library. In addition to its collections encompassing over 77,000 items in print and electronic media, the Blackstone offers literacy programs, technology training, exposure to arts and culture, and a vision of an enriched community for all of Branford’s residents.
This is all accomplished in a building that is often described as awesome on the outside, yet comfortable and welcoming on the inside. Yet, it is still a building designed for a 19th Century library that urgently needs to be adapted to meet the challenges of a 21st Century library.
The Library recently completed a new strategic plan. One of the goals of that plan is that “the Library will be a warm and welcoming place which offers a variety of spaces for learning, reading and gathering.”
To that end, the plan identified a strategy to evolve the physical space which includes the following:
• Undertake an architectural review to determine methods to reconfigure and redesign current spaces within the library to best meet community needs.
• Develop a facilities plan that includes strategies for general improvement, building restoration (where needed), and reconfiguration efforts.
Included among the community needs to be better met are:
• A better location of the children’s area with everything in one room
• The amount of space for the children’s area
• Expanded meeting room space
• A café
• Expanded internet access areas
• Program areas just for young adults
The architectural review was conducted over a period of months in mid-2013 by the architectural firm of Arbonies King Vlock, PC., in extensive consultation with trustees, staff and stakeholders of the library. The resulting plan calls for extensive renovation and a modest modification to the rear of the building to provide an enhanced entryway while continuing to preserve the architectural integrity of the library.
1. Enhanced entryway at the rear of the Library–Since most of the parking available to the library is in the rear and along Laurel Street, the rear entrance is the principal entryway for library patrons. It is, however, a narrow and difficult access point especially for children and the handicapped. The small expansion of 2500 square feet planned in place of the existing cement patio on the Cedar Street side of the building will be at the ground floor level and minimally visible from outside the building. Its roof will serve as a patio that is accessed from the auditorium and will enhance special events that take place in that venue. The expansion area will provide a lobby entrance with closer access to the parking area, accessible restrooms, and a larger, more comfortable and efficient circulation area benefiting both the public and staff. A new elevator from the new lobby will provide convenient access to all three floors.
2. A better location and more space for the children’s area–The children’s department location on the top floor of the building is underutilized by children and their caregivers, many of whom find it difficult to access. The configuration of a series of small rooms makes it impossible for caregivers and staff to monitor children in various rooms and the open railing presents a noise problem and a safety issue. Therefore, the children’s and young adult collections will be moved to the ground floor. Sight lines will be improved; the children’s and young adult area will be expanded to approximately 3250 square feet. The new children’s area will have much improved sight lines, ample play area, many different types of furniture for leisure reading and studying, a computer/gaming area and a family restroom. A combined children/young adult desk will be located between these two areas to provide support and service.
3. Young adults–Teens are an underserved group and the space allocated for the teen collection is inadequate for its size, nor is it in proximity to youth services staff who can provide guidance for research and reading suggestions. The young adult areas will be relocated to the ground floor which, along with the children’s area, will occupy a total of 3250 square feet. A central youth services desk provides service to both areas, which are located in opposite wings. The new section for young adults will offer separate areas for studying/reading and areas for computers and a Teen Cafe. The young adult area will also offer its own entrance but will be situated so that youth services staff are within sight.
4. The Collection–The adult fiction & media will remain on the ground floor but be moved nearer to the new entrance and circulation desk in the area now occupied by the library offices which will be moved to the top floor. The non-fiction collection will be also moved to the top floor.
5. Expanded meeting room space–Over 20,000 people attended programs, both large and small, at the Blackstone Library in 2013, and more could have been accommodated if there were room. So, in addition to the Lucy Hammer Room on the main floor, the plan will provide for a new medium sized meeting room on the top floor, and a larger meeting room on the top floor made possible by the enclosure of the auditorium balcony. Further, the current kitchenette located at the rear of the auditorium will be relocated to the top floor to permit in the auditorium to accommodate larger programs when necessary. The kitchenette on the top floor will be located close to the elevator to be able to continue to serve events in the auditorium that require catering or refreshments.
6. Expanded internet access–The current Reading Room on the main floor will remain, but renovations to the Reference area on the west side of the main floor will provide an expanded technology area to serve patrons in addition to the added technology in the Teen area.
7. Other Technology–The building renovation will upgrade and update all aspects of library technology including internet access, wireless internet access, anti-theft equipment/devices, video monitoring and recording equipment, audio-visual equipment including group presentation devices and smart technology. The focus will be on adapting and improving a 19th century building to accommodate 21st Century technology by improving the infrastructure and adding equipment based on the recommendations of a professional technology consultant.
It is anticipated that the scope of the renovations will require significant modifications to the structure to bring it into full compliance with current building codes, and further modifications to the grounds and parking areas to bring them into full compliance with handicapped access codes. The building renovation will position the library to be a space that contributes much “more than books” to its community. The proposed building improvements will equip the library to fulfill its mission as a vibrant community space where people will gather for essential access to information, resources and unique shared experiences to help ensure Branford is an educated and enriched community for decades to come.
The cost of the project is estimated at $6,920,550, of which the State of Connecticut has already committed $1,000,000 in support.