To The Daily Sun,
I hope to clarify, inform and encourage debate about the future of the Meredith Public Library (MPL) and the Benjamin Smith Library Building (BSLB.) These are two separate entities. BSLB belongs to the Town of Meredith, as dictated by New Hampshire law. How this property should be re-purposed is up to the town. If you have a good idea, advocate for it.
MPL is our wonderful staff, our commitment to promote local culture and lifelong learning, collections, programs, outreach and furnishings. MPL Trustees are elected primarily to work for the MPL. We have custody of BSLB because it contains the MPL. BSLB's interests increasingly compete and conflict with the priorities of MPL.
Consider the view from the front door: Foyer and desk — glorious; room to the right — airy and elegant, yet warm and inviting. Cast your eyes left, and it's painful. Ugly computer cubicles obscure the fireplace. DVD and audio books clutter the remaining space. The rooms mirror each other, but, unless you look up, that harmony is gone.
MLP's greatest asset is the staff. I'm surprised they stay. Their "offices" are cramped and inconvenient. They get no private breaks because all programs and meetings use the same room. They must weed excessively to make way for new materials. (Any doubters? Please examine figures for materials acquired v. culled in the last several town reports.) Our esteemed director is a talented grant writer, but her efforts benefit BSLB, very rarely MPL.
BSLB is not "user friendly" for anyone in a wheelchair or challenged by stairs. It no longer serves families well, especially those with younger children. There are two toilets in the building. These are two full floors from the children's library and a half a floor from the meeting/program/staff room. Every week, we have one or two accidents on the stairs — children, elderly and staff members, all have fallen.
More than intellect, this debate requires imagination and some degree of compassion. Stand on the sidewalk and pretend. You have returns, a diaper bag and two young children. You're going to the basement and the attic... Or arrive at the back and think yourself into a wheelchair. Fiction is the only easy option (can't check out or use a bathroom) so you cruise the stacks. Great, but remember, you are seated. You see only books that, when you are standing, are on shelves between your knees and maybe four inches above your belly button. Over half are unavailable.
MPL/BSLB, open five days a week, serves 200-300 people a day. Inability to park is by far the biggest gripe about the library. Congestion on Main Street is a major reason why some opt for libraries and P.O. boxes in surrounding towns. Staff and trustees dream about an easily accessed lot with 40-60 spaces and ample off-road area for buses and wheelchair vans to maneuver.
Meredith has had three municipal entities downtown for decades, but Main Street struggles. MPL/BSLB visits take longer than most Post Office or Town Hall errands. We know many of our patrons also pick up mail. Is it impossible these three municipals might be one too many in our particular town center?
My most vivid memory of MPL/BSLB is from the 1950s. As usual, my family arrived and split up to browse where we liked. This was freedom: picking my own books, checking out independently with my new card. As I waited for the old gentleman preceding me, I had this amazing revelation: we were equals in this magic space. Awesome! And impossible today.
What else exists only in memory? Quiet places to study; exhibitions of World War I and World War II gear; local people's eccentric collections; presentations by folks who've traveled or have an expertise to share; the bridge, chess, camera and astronomy clubs. Only registered charities use the Community Center for free, and recreation spaces are often inappropriate for small groups like these. Where can they go?
Libraries with good visual continuity are the most family-friendly. For this, ease of access and efficient staffing, a library on one level is optimal. This also generally allows for the least "unassignable" space and provides for easier emergency egress. With such a building, MPL could open six days/week without adding staff.
This is biggest bang for the buck to build and to run. MPL plans a fund-raising effort but must find a location. For a single-level 14,000-square-foot building with parking for 40-60 cars (suitable for our population) MPL needs three to five acres. If we build it, they will come.
Even if all three properties around BSLB could be acquired, the total is less than 1.5 acres. Forget the dream parking lot. MPL needs a single level addition to the ground floor of BSLB of at least 10,000 square feet. The 1980s extension is tactful and unobtrusive, yet still disrupts the elegant symmetry of the original. What would a massive second addition do to this splendid old building and beautiful location?
Library to museum conversions have succeeded elsewhere. BSLB could be an impressive town hall. The present one and/or annex might then be sold and returned to the tax roll. Maybe Meredith needs a business incubator to diversify our economy and attract young people — a "maker space" with 3D printers and working areas for artists and inventors. Whatever. But those who love the BSLB should think about creating an endowment and a team to ensure it is properly maintained and preserved.
Pamela Coburn, Trustee
Meredith Public Library
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