Rhode Island Library Report
TIVERTON, R.I. – (Oct. 27, 2013) – Barbara Donnelly still remembers the moment in early 2009 when she got a call telling her that the trustees of Tiverton Library Services had won $475,000 in federal funds to help buy land for a new library - a dream that had eluded the board for nearly three decades.
“I was walking in my door from work, the phone was ringing, and I ran over and picked up the phone,” Donnelly said at the Oct. 26, groundbreaking for the new building off Bliss Four Corners. “It was Senator (Jack) Reed. He was telling me that we had received a grant from HUD,” she said. “I was walking on air. “
Earlier this year, Donnelly, the board chair, reminisced about the trustees’ journey since they first realized, in 1978, that they would need to do something about the tiny Essex Library.
“He was the person who really did it for us,” she said of Reed. “At least we had some money to try to buy a parcel of land."
She made the comments as she looked around the cramped quarters of the Essex library, which has 2,500 square feet of usable interior space – about the same as the typical single-family home.
But with the groundbreaking for the new, $10.6 million building, the end of the long journey is now in sight.
The state's role: a stick and a carrot
Tiverton would lose state operating funds and be shut out of a borrowing network that pools the collections of some 200 libraries throughout Rhode Island, sending books crisscrossing the state at patrons’ beck and call.
The trustees knew that Essex could not survive under those circumstances, a fact that kept them pushing forward on a “grueling” path, Donnelly said.
And yet a new library was perennially a hard sell in Tiverton, a collection of villages and neighborhoods known for their frugality. Many people felt well-served at Essex, a quaint jewel box of fieldstone on Highland Road with views of sunsets over the Sakonnet River.
The Essex Library was built in 1939 as a bequest of a retired school teacher and summer resident, Lydia B. Essex, in memory of her mother. Erected on the site of the former Essex family home, it was intended to serve a rural community of some 3,000 people.
The post-war boom saw Tiverton’s population grow by 70 percent between 1950 and 1960, according to census figures. By the year 2000, its population topped the 15,000-mark.
Donnelly described the wheelchair ramp at the rear of the building as a “ski jump” in winter. The library’s only public toilet is inaccessible by wheelchair.
Some library programs and meetings must be held elsewhere in the community because no more than 30 people can go about their business inside the library at any one time without violating the fire code, made much more stringent after the Station nightclub fire of 2003.
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The library has had to secure annual waivers from the state to continue running children’s programs in the basement. State regulations say young children should not have programs below ground, because they are too small to navigate stairs for a quick exit in an emergency.
The Essex basement, which houses teen books as well as the children’s collection, also has sustained damage from flooding in recent years. Heavy rains in 2010 claimed more than 4,500 books.
Just a few weeks ago, the library was forced to close when both septic pumps failed and sewage backed up into the teen room. The library has since reopened.
The trustees recognized a need for a new library in 1978, the year Donnelly joined the board.
They have known since 1987 that Essex could not be renovated or expanded. A study led by a noted library consultant of the time concluded that the foundation was hemmed in by granite. Not only would it cost $350,000 to clear the rock for an addition, but the explosions could
“We did do some fundraising at that time,” Donnelly said, “but in 1987 the economy got so bad. We knew we could not afford a new building. ”
It was difficult enough just to get the money needed to run the existing library, she said.
Over the next decade, the board considered and discarded alternate construction plans, while state library officials became increasingly concerned that Tiverton’s space problem prevented it from conforming to modern standards of library service.
The pressure increases
The Tiverton trustees faced a “huge challenge,” said Karen Mellor, acting state chief officer of the Office of Library and Information Services.
The state offered to reimburse Tiverton for half of the construction costs up to $200 a square foot, but “it was up to the local community to drive the process,” Mellor said.
The Tiverton library trustees laid out the newly-instituted state ultimatum to town officials. And while the trustees did gather some support in town hall and in the community over the next several years, it wasn’t enough to get any start-up cash from the financial town meeting.
Hearing the trustees’ request for a start-up planning grant in 2005 for a building ten times the size of Essex, one Town Council member called the proposal “outlandish.”
Many sites were proposed over the years, but nothing came together until the trustees found two parcels of land totaling five acres off Bliss Four Corners, near shopping areas, schools, a public recreation field and the site of Sandywoods Farm, an artists’ colony.
At that point, the only source of funds the library had was its endowment, although the trustees were taking steps to form a non-profit foundation to solicit capital contributions.
Sleepless nights lead to a promising idea
In the wee hours one night shortly before Thanksgiving of 2007, Ryan got out of bed and went to her computer, looking for ideas.
“I went to my favorite go-to, feel-good site,” said Ryan, president of the Friends of the Tiverton Libraries, the advocacy and community fundraising arm of the library effort.
Ryan found a notice about an upcoming conference on “green” library building design in Chicago that would showcase problem-solving for one or two case studies.
Tiverton submitted information on its project and was selected for an architectural workshop, or charette.
Ryan and three others from Tiverton paid their own way to Chicago to attend the conference sponsored by the prestigious Library Journal in December, 2007. And the Tiverton project received national exposure when the charette was written up in a subsequent Library Journal issue.
“This shifted the conversation,” Ryan said.
“If people from the national Library Journal and an architect say it can work, what’s the stopping point?”
Fresh from the conference, a re-energized group of trustees quickly identified available funds at the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development and made sure Senator Reed knew of Tiverton’s need. They included the Library Journal report in the packet of materials sent him.
Barbara Donnelly ended up writing the complicated grant application that was approved by HUD. She got the call from Reed at the end of February, 2009.
From then on, the project gained momentum. Of a total anticipated cost of $10.6 million to build a 23,792 square foot building, a total of $3.2 million in grants and pledges have come in, despite the economic recession of the last several years, according to Eileen Browning, president of the Tiverton Library Foundation.
In the face of an anti-tax majority that gained a majority on the Town Council in 2010, the trustees kept their pitch politically neutral.
“We convinced them this was an investment in the town,” said Ann Grealish-Rust, the library director.
The new library was promoted as a modern “information hub” and community center with ample meeting space, something the town lacked.
It would feature up-to-date print and digital collections for all interests and provide adult education, social enrichment and video conferencing, among other amenities.
When the $7 million bond issue was put on the ballot for November 2011, library advocates campaigned door-to-door, explaining that Tiverton residents would be responsible for $3 million of the total over 20 years, which amounted to $30 a year for a typical family. The state would reimburse the town for the remaining $4 million.
“I have great respect for the building committee and the board of trustees,” said the state’s Karen Mellor. “It’s very impressive how these people have gone above and beyond to benefit the entire community. They make my job rewarding,” she said earlier this year.
"Debt of gratitude to the people of Tiverton"
“For 200 years, Tiverton has had a collection of merchants, summer people and local people who have built libraries in their local community because they saw the need and made it happen,” she said.
From 1820 onward, another library popped up every 20 years, she said. The tiny Union Library at Tiverton Four Corners, begun in 1820, survives as part of Tiverton’s public library system.
All the libraries have been part of the strong volunteer heritage of the town, which is the backbone of its strength and resilience, Ryan said.
At the groundbreaking, Donnelly talked about the rewards of volunteerism. “I’ve been involved for so many years, and I’ve made so many friends volunteering. I have become aware of so much that is going on in the town. I feel we have great people in this town and when they come together, they can do wonderful things.”
“We owe such a debt of gratitude to the people of Tiverton,” Donnelly said, “because without that ‘yes’ vote, we could not have gone on. We would not be here today. “