By JOHN HOWELL
How has the Warwick Public Library changed, and how should it change to meet community needs of the future?
Christopher LaRoux, director, says the library has evolved into much more of a community center, providing “maker space” for organizations and groups to meet and conduct activities. LaRoux expects the library administration and trustees will get an even clearer picture as consultant Maxine Bleiweis and Associates drafts a five-year master plan that is expected to be completed by June.
The trustees recently awarded Bleiweis a $16,500 contract to perform the strategic plan. An aim of the plan is to define what more the library can do in the community, LaRoux said.
Mary Johnson, immediate past president of the Library Board of Trustees, sees the plan as providing and “outside view” of the library. She said there is no suggestion that the configuration of the central library and branches might change and that, in fact, if anything there could be more activities and events. Closure of any branches – Norwood, Apponaug and Conimicut – is not a consideration.
In a telephone interview Sunday, Bleiweis called the plan an “exciting and eye opening” process that instead of starting with a look from the inside goes to the outside to learn what the community sees as the challenges faced by the library as well as defining its expectations and hopes.
Bleiweis said libraries are spaces where “anyone can walk in and be embraced.”
According to her LinkedIn profile, Bleiweis has earned numerous awards, including the Connecticut Library Association’s Outstanding Librarian of the Year Award (2011) and the Public Library Association’s Charles Robinson Award for Innovative Leadership (2015).
During her 17 years as executive director of the Westport Library, Bleiweis was recognized as a leader in implementing new technologies as they evolved, setting the trend to introduce 3D printing and robots. She was among the first to dedicate a “MakerSpace” for hands-on innovation in the public library. In 2013, the U.S. State Department asked Bleiweis to host a conference of librarians visiting from Moscow and later sent Bleiweis to Russia to share her experiences as an innovator.
With nearly 400,000 visitors annually, the Central Library is one of the busiest in the state. Its annual circulation is more than 600,000 items and program attendance exceeds 26,000 people.
The building consists of 63,000 square feet and, thanks to Champlin Foundation grants, is regularly undergoing upgrades. Some of the more recent improvements include the addition on meeting rooms on the first floor level and a remake of the Children’s Library on the second floor.
The library board is in the process of reviewing bids for the renovations of both male and female restrooms, which will be funded with a $224,000 Champlin grant. The library has a staff of 35 full-time equivalents, including 13 professional librarians, and an operating budget of more than $4.5 million.
LaRoux is looking for the strategic plan to suggest means to increase library outreach for, as he said, “many people can’t come to the library.” An example of library outreach was its participation in the Rally 4 Recovery held in September in the Warwick Mall parking lot, where 20 agencies dealing with issues relating to addiction, substance abuse and suicide that make up The Collaborative set up displays providing information on their services. The Collaborative meets at the library, and the library’s role at the rally was to get out the word on its programs, Jana Stevenson, library deputy director, explained at the time.
Indeed, the library offers a plethora of programs. A brochure listing adult events for January covers a range of activities, including learning how to meditate, a scrapbook rally, breakfast with books, funeral and estate planning programs and the Banjo Bob All-Stars Dixieland Band concert on Sunday, Jan. 26 at 2 p.m. Movies on the “big screen” is an ongoing feature at the library. Events are free but may require registration depending on space availability.
With its easy access and diversity of programs and services, the library has become an important resource for the homeless. It is a place for the “working poor” to have access to computers and information, if not to get off the street.
LaRoux estimated between 20 and 30 homeless people visit the Central Library daily. He expects the plan will address ways to work with this population.
He sees the library as “an inviting and friendly space.” In some instances, the library looks to talk with social workers. Last year, a family was living out of a car parked in the library lot. LaRoux said some neighbors were concerned when they saw a man in the vicinity of a school bus stop. He said police were aware of the situation.
The library, he said, is being used as a meeting place where parents whose children are in the care of the Department of Children Youth and Families get the chance to see their kids.
“There are areas where families can go,” he said.
Bleiweis makes a point of not using the word “homeless” to describe some people who are using the library.
“I would say they are between homes,” she said. “Everyone has a right to be in a space of hope [the library].”
According to bid specifications, the strategic plan is to be completed by gathering data about existing library operations and community indicators, including census data, community feedback surveys and other essential information.
Bleiweis is to analyze data in preparation for the planning committee meetings. She is also to conduct a staff and board focus group which includes a Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats (SWOT) analysis; facilitate a community focus group; and work with the library staff and board to move the community through a process in order to determine programs and services that need to be maintained, those that need to be expanded, and new services that should be provided.
As a means of charting the plan, Bleiweis is also expected to conduct focus groups with the library Board of Trustees, the library staff, Friends of the Warwick Public Library as well as representatives from local groups, residents, city personnel and city government.
Bleiweis said she is in the process of developing a schedule and looks at the exercise as codifying and solidifying the goals of the library for the next several years.