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Starting a new chapter

November 26, 2018

STAMFORD — When the Harry Bennett library branch opened in 2000, it was the dawn of the digital era. The internet was just taking the stage, preparing to open a door to a new way of using computers.

The Vine Road building was created with changing times in mind. However, the role of the libraries is evolving again two decades later. On Wednesday, a free community dinner will be held at the Harry Bennett to discuss the future of the branch.

People are flocking to local libraries more than ever for help with anything from learning new job or writing skills to completing a TSA PreCheck or passport applications. Through the many library programs offered across the state, you could also learn about anything from beer to architecture.

There are more than 170 public libraries in Connecticut, in addition to government libraries and those in schools or universities. Attendance and usage at most have steadily increased in the past few years, several library directors said — thanks to the institutions reinventing themselves, their facilities and the programs they offer.

Over the past several years, Stamford libraries began offering new resources like courses on becoming a citizen and meditation.

They’ve also begun integrating technology, launching Connecticut’s first immersive tech lab in 2016 and opening their calendar to Amazon’s Alexa in 2017 so users can obtain information about library programs and events by asking their device. This fall, they launched a tech and entrepreneur zone on the third floor of the main branch as a space where people could work on developing their business ideas.

Some library adaptations are physical. Erin Shea, supervisor of the Harry Bennett, Weed Memorial and Hollander branches, imagined renovating the Vine Road building with a $5,000 Libraries Services and Technology Act grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

The grant is helping to pay for a consultant to re-imagine the vision of the library with input from patrons and community members.

Taking input from taxpayers is something Alice Knapp, president of the Ferguson Library, says has become a staple of their work since 2010 when then-mayor Michael Pavia cut library funding by more than 10 percent, leading to reduced hours, materials and employees.

Knapp said the Ferguson has since needed fundraising and community donations to stay afloat. The library’s annual fundraiser, A Novel Affair, usually generates $1 million.

“We really became a fundraising library in that our annual appeal became more central,” Knapp said. “One of the things that happens when you become a fundraising library is the community owns the library. Via taxes, they already did, but when they own it above and beyond that, they really take ownership.”

Tucked away off Newfield Avenue, the Harry Bennett is not as centrally located as the main Broad Street branch, but it still attracts a range of patrons, from senior citizens who thumb through the newspaper to college students seeking haven to study. Story hours have also become increasingly popular among young families.

Shea says more people come to the library as a “third place” to meet up with others or work.

“We’re seeing an increase in people who really want to use the library as space,” Shea said. “Our brand is still books, but we’re also seeing more and more people coming here for programs.”

Shea says a renovation is long overdue for the Harry Bennett branch, which has walls that don’t reach the ceiling, allowing sound to travel across the building.

“I’d been envisioning a physical renovation,” Shea said. “Some people want a place where their kid can be a kid. Some people want to use the library for a quiet space. I believe both uses are very valid. What I’d like to see is different parts of the building turned into different sound environments.”

The Wednesday event, “Shape the Future of the Harry Bennett Branch” will allow patrons and non-users to express what they would like to see in a library.

“We’re definitely trying to meet the needs of community members rather than telling them how a library should be,” Shea said. “They don’t need to come with ideas. They just need to come with an open mind.”

The role of the Ferguson and its branches has increased in the community in recent years.

Last year, the library reported it lent 800,000 physical items and e-books. The library received $8.4 million for this year’s budget, which will be supplemented with fundraisers and grants. In 2015, a donation from an anonymous library user allowed the Harry Bennett branch to remain open five days a week.

Knapp said community input has guided the library’s events, such as a recent conversation series about race in Stamford. Knapp said they are considering expanding the Ferguson’s programming in physical ways like bringing book discussion groups to the Boys and Girls Club. The library will also release guidelines on what should replace Starbucks, which recently closed in the Broad Street building.

“We really try to align our strategic priorities with community priorities,” Knapp said.

To register for “Shape the Future of the Harry Bennett Branch,” which begins at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, visit http://fergusonlibrary.org/event/#/?i=1

erin.kayata@stamfordadvocate.com; (203) 964-2265; @erin_kayata

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