The New York Library Association has selected the Phoenicia Library to receive a 2016 Building Award, in recognition of the successful renovation of the library building to meet the requests of the community for open space, more programming, and better access to books. The award comes on the heels of a recently written five-year Plan of Service, which publishes the findings from focus groups and a townwide survey.
When a fire in 2010 gutted the library and destroyed the book collection, the community helped fund a renovation and expansion. In commenting on the award, Rebekkah Smith Aldrich of the Mid-Hudson Library System said, “The Phoenicia Library turned a tragedy into opportunity by making excellent ‘long-haul choices’ that are good for the community. Designing a space around the people who use the library and prioritizing energy efficiency to keep operating costs down for generations to come demonstrate how responsive and smart the Phoenicia Library has been on behalf of their community.”
“This is a a really big honor,” said Phoenicia Library director Elizabeth Potter. “They look for libraries that are using innovative, cost-effective methods to provide better service. How do you help sustain a community and make it healthy? Well-being is an intangible thing that gets lost in the marketplace.”
The redesign of the library reflected new trends and demands made by the public over the last decade of an increasingly technological age. In her application for the award, Potter noted, “At the time of the fire, the library had been physically a static building for 50 years — a small, drafty 150-year-old former funeral home dominated entirely by shelving and stacks. There was no children’s room other than a cramped back area whose floor space also served as the path to the stairs to the second floor. The only area resembling a gathering space (our Angler’s Parlor) held perhaps a dozen attendees among the books, fishing lures and rods. We had experienced a huge increase in use in the years prior to the fire (with an 80% increase in circulation in the prior decade) and long outgrown our space.”
The new library features a light, airy room dedicated to children and a spacious gathering room for lectures and workshops. The main reading room has accommodated up to 70 people for readings and concerts. “Libraries are becoming more and more community centers,” said Potter. “It used to be people would just take out a book or a CD. Now they’re coming in and using computers, bringing laptops, attending programs — they stick around.”
In place of the dark, cramped stacks full of antiquated titles that have not been checked out for years, books are shelved along the walls in a configuration that welcomes browsing of the smaller, more selective collection. “We’re a lending library,” pointed out Potter. “This isn’t true of a university library or a big library like the one in Poughkeepsie. But for small towns, there’s been a big shift. We were one of the first local libraries that did this — getting rid of stacks, cutting down our collection by a third, so people can see what’s available, so they’re not overwhelmed by old books that aren’t circulating, when you can get those books from Mid-Hudson Library Association in two days anyway.” The result has been a 50 percent jump in items checked out.
Focus group, survey participation
Last summer, library trustees assembled focus groups to find out how people were using the library and what they wanted in the future. Later a survey was mailed to all Shandaken residents, with an outreach effort that yielded 300 responses, about ten percent of the town’s population. “We made sure to include people who don’t use the library,” said Potter. “It’s just as much theirs, and they have as much say.”
Board president Bernard Handzel said even the non-users recognized the value of having a library in town to enhance property values and provide resources for students. Among the goals specified in the Plan of Service are continued efforts to encourage youth literacy; support for life-long learning, including job search, skill improvement, and digital literacy for adults; and providing a harmonious environment for the community, with comfortable spaces for quiet time, gatherings, and cultural events.
“The surveys showed that people love this community,” said Potter. “They’re proud of the people here, and they wanted the library to concentrate on programs that would highlight these people.” New programs have included “Coffee with a Cop,” in which residents conversed with Shandaken police chief Chad Storey. Last winter’s grant from Arts Mid-Hudson led to three “Cabin Fever” concerts by local musicians. Writers who live in Shandaken have been featured in readings. “We always get a packed house for these events,” said Potter.
It was clear from the survey that residents also see the library as a technological hub of the community. For people who don’t have computers, don’t have speedy Internet connection, or have an emergency need for a computer when theirs breaks, the library is a reliable resource. Courses in computer use for elders have been held in the main room, and there is now a monthly visit from a tech wizard who fixes people’s computer problems for free. “We have to pay him,” said Potter. “He’s giving us a break, but he’s really skilled, and his services are paid for by a grant.”
A persistent request was to have the library open for more hours, especially on Friday evenings. Two hours have been added to the Friday schedule, but further expansion is not currently an option. The longer Friday hours require additional staff time, which cannot be compensated for cutting other hours because employees need the quieter times to process checkouts and checkins since the increase in circulation. The library has been exceeding its budget to pay staff, drawing on savings and insurance money, which are nearly exhausted. Therefore, the board is requesting a real estate tax increase, which will go before the voters in November.
Any tax hike — even the requested additional $14 per year for the average household — is bound to be contested in Shandaken, where many homeowners live on fixed or marginal incomes. When the petition was presented at this month’s town board meeting, both the board and members of the audience requested more details on what the additional funds would be used for. Library trustees plan to submit a budget breakdown so voters will be prepared to make a decision by Election Day.