Rhode Island Library Report
WEST WARWICK, R.I. (April 27, 2013) – The workshop was about the chronic heartaches and sometimes heady rewards of preserving the historic character of old library buildings when they are rebuilt to meet modern needs.
But what drew gasps from the audience was a photograph of the Westerly Public Library in 1937 – not because of an impending crisis for the library, but the disaster awaiting the ghostly shape that could be seen above the library’s distinctive roof.
Passing over the library was the German airship Hindenburg, tailfins emblazoned with Nazi swastikas. The day of the photo, said library director Kathryn Taylor, was May 6, 1937; the time 1:21 p.m. About six hours later, the Hindenburg would explode while landing in New Jersey, one of the world’s most famous air disasters, which killed 36.
While technically, the photograph didn’t fit the topic, “New Libraries in Old Buildings,” it was an apt symbol of why many older library buildings are worth preserving: because the structures, just like their print and digital materials inside, dramatically connect their patrons’ pasts with their futures.
The session, attended by about 30 people, was part of the much larger annual statewide conference sponsored by the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission, which drew about 500 people from Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut to this one-time manufacturing town, now celebrating its centennial.
Taylor was one of three panelists representing a range of libraries: the Westerly library at the southern edge of the state; the Willett Free Library in the North Kingstown village of Saunderstown, probably the state’s smallest library; and the state’s largest system, the nine-branch Providence Community Library.
In each case, the buildings discussed are key landmarks on the psychological as well as physical landscapes of their communities. Each has confronted unique challenges; each has managed to come up with solutions.
Completed in 2011 was a $6.5 million project involving interior work, along with a new outside ramp, replacing one constructed years ahead of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, but built with twists and turns that made it difficult for wheelchairs to navigate.
“They really wanted it to be like an archeological dig, so you could see what used to be there,” Taylor said. That produced many grumbles, and a comment from an official of the Champlin Foundations, which had helped with financing, to the effect that a “small house” could have been built with the resources that went into the ramp.
However, Taylor said, that project turned out to be a net plus: it features a long, gentle slope that makes it more of a walkway than ramp, running elegantly alongside the building.
“Look how beautiful that is,” Taylor said, as she brought up a photo of the finished project on a screen in a meeting room in the West Warwick Senior Citizens Center. “I thank the Rhode Island Historic Preservation & Heritage Commission for making us more beautiful than we planned to be.”
Leaky roof and a faltering stairway
Marlane focused on just one of the libraries – the Knight Memorial in the capital city’s Elmwood neighborhood. Its roots go back to 1915, when Elmwood women raised funds for a library which rapidly outgrew its quarters above a fire station. In 1924, the family of Robert Brayton Knight, founder of Fruit of the Loom Company, established the new building.
“It is truly a spectacular building,” Marlane said, showing photos of stained glass windows and reading rooms with huge windows and sturdy old tables and chairs. Then-and-now pictures documented that the library has changed very little over the decades.
“In some ways,” she said with a note of irony, “neglect has the benefit of not having buildings suffer through really nasty ‘70s renovations that made things really, really ugly. So while things fall apart, which we’re fixing, you still have all of this stuff preserved.”
Thus, Marlane noted, the staff at Knight Memorial react with “Pavlovian response” when they hear rain falling, grabbing their assigned buckets and rushing them to where leaks occur.
However, the roof is being worked on, paid for by private donations, and the repairs should be finished in mid-May. Next up: rebuilding iconic stone stairs at the front entrance, which are pulling away from the building and which are now blocked off by a security fence.
A Community Development Block Grant from the city will pay for much of the work, she said, and the Friends of the Knight Memorial Library on May 9 will hold a fundraiser, with a $13,000 goal to make up the difference.
Meanwhile, the PCL’s Smith Hill Library will undergo major renovations, helped by the Champlin Foundations, to repair that building’s leaky roof, and bring the interior up to standards outlined in the disabilities’ law.
Both the Knight Memorial and Smith Hill repairs should be completed by summer, “so then we’ll have two building in really, really good shape, and we are really excited about that,” Marlane said.
Big changes at a small library
The current library, designed in the early 1900s by Christopher Grant LaFarge, who helped design the Cathedral of St. John the Devine in New York City, is the state’s smallest library by many measures – it has about 253 cardholders compared to 56,783 at Providence Community Library.
Popular with residents, who love features like its working fireplace, it was so crammed with books that librarian John Edwards called it more “kiosk” than library, and there was no place to sit down with a laptop computer. So in 2001, Renshaw said, the trustees raised enough money, including a Champlin grant, to renovate the building which reopened this past January.
The result is that elements like the fireplace were retained. Adding some square footage and slightly raising the roof, resulted in better use of space, helped by having moveable bookcases that can be rolled back to allow seating for events.
As with the Westerly library, he said that installation of a wheelchair accessible ramp turned out to have unexpected benefits, in this case an added porch that provides space for space for warm weather use.
“It’s a wonderful community center,” he said. “This has a tremendous sense of place that has the historic integrity that the neighbors just didn’t want to lose.”
The panel session, moderated by the writer of this article, ended with questions from the audience, including the crucial issue of raising money.
Marlane, the Providence Community Library director, said some libraries are forming tax-exempt organizations to raise money that municipalities can’t or won’t, and that library directors have to take on new roles.
“I think libraries have to become advocates much more than ever before,” Marlane said. “Directors need to be political; they need to be really active in their community to generate the fundraising that they need.
“It’s always been difficult for libraries,” she said. “They are usually the first thing cut in any budget. That’s just been traditionally the way it’s been. But now with the economy where it is, libraries really need to advocate for themselves, and build their position in the community and become more of a community center.”