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Monday, May 20, 2024

Ilsley Public Library announces renovation plans

The Ilsley 100 Project Team, responsible for leading renovations to the Ilsley Public Library in downtown Middlebury, has announced the options for a library makeover. The library building will reach its 100th anniversary in 2024, and with the space struggling to meet community needs, the team has proposed four options for updating the space. 

Depending on the final renovation plan, construction on the building is expected to begin in late 2024 or 2025. 

The Ilsley Public Library was built in 1924 at the end of the Carnegie Period. Its style is typical of early 20th-century libraries. 

The original building was constructed in a cruciform shape, which is an ideal format for a library, according to Ilsley Director Dana Hart. Due to the Middlebury community’s expanding needs and the introduction of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the library has since made renovations in an attempt to increase space and accessibility. 

A renovation in 1977 added the side entrance and elevator, while an additional wing with a reference room was built in 1988. The need for further renovations arose in 2007, but numerous challenges prevented renovations from gaining traction. The Library Building Committee proposed a plan in 2017, but due to the downtown bridge and rail project, changes in library staff, and the Covid-19 pandemic, the project had to be put on hold. 

These additions over the past 100 years have contributed to some of the building’s problems today — the 1977 side entrance is unwelcoming, and the elevator is on its last legs, often stalling with patrons inside. The 1988 renovation created a large space out of the sightline of the front desk, creating safety issues. 

Along with these concerns, the library hopes to better adapt the space to the community. They plan to add 6,000 square feet to the space in order to increase programming and community space. Hart identified her main concerns with the building: its safety, accessibility, lack of flexibility and lack of space overall.  

These safety concerns include the unmonitored bathrooms and the need for sightlines in the building. Groundwater and roof leaks, a temperamental boiler and a lack of second egress on the third floor are also issues to be addressed. The side entrance and unreliable elevator limit accessibility, while the many columns and supporting walls interfere with flexibility and workflow. 

With the children’s room in the basement, the lack of a teen room or community meeting room, and the need for more shelving space, the library requires an expansion to better serve members of the Middlebury community, library leadership explained. 

Joe McVeigh, president of the library board of trustees, emphasized the importance of flexibility in an increasingly digital world.“Nobody knows what a library is going to be like in twenty years or fifty years. They’ve changed a lot over the past number of years, so consequently, our ideal would be to create a space where whatever happens, we can move things around,” McVeigh told The Campus.

Both Hart and McVeigh are members of the Ilsley 100 Project Team, which was tasked by the town of Middlebury Select Board to make plans for the library. 

At a Jan. 10 Select Board meeting, the team presented four options, each with cost estimations, designated Options A, B, C and D. While the Select Board chose Options B and D as possibilities, the team presented all four plans to the community to give them a full picture of the planning process. 

Estimated to cost $5.5 million, Option A proposed renovating the current building. While it would preserve the original structure, it does not address the library’s need for more space or flexibility, and, accordingly, will not be a renovation option. 

The committee also abandoned Option C, estimated at $12.7 million, which involved remodeling the original building and adding an offsite annex, likely in the long-empty Ben Franklin store on Main Street. This option addressed the library’s need for space but would separate the children’s and adult sections, preventing the intergenerational mingling that is vital to the library. 

Option B involves renovations to the current building with an expansion that would include  some demolition of the previous add-ons. Priced at $14.8 million, this option would preserve the original structure and create more space, while also being the most straightforward option in the sense that it would not require the purchase of new property. However, it would limit future growth and require the library to relocate during construction. 

Finally, Option D, estimated to cost $23 million, proposes an entirely new library building in the lower parking lot area behind the current library. While this option would provide a blank slate for the library and increase outdoor space, it would likely require a developer to build an attached parking garage with housing or commercial space, and the old building would be lost. 

Though the current building has its host of difficulties, patrons love the library as a community fixture. The library provides space for a variety of functions, including youth activities, concerts, exhibitions, and other literacy and community groups. 

At a public Zoom meeting soliciting feedback about the project, many community members reiterated their love for the old building and its central location. While some attendees were excited by Option D’s fresh start, Option B was a frontrunner. Many residents are interested in maintaining the original library building because it has been a part of Middlebury for so many years. 

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“One of the people that we work with remembers coming to kindergarten downstairs here. People for generations have brought their kids here. I think it has a place in people’s hearts,” McVeigh said. 

While there is not currently a definite path for the library's future, it certainly aims to continue  anchoring and uniting the community.

“The Ilsley Public Library is the heart of the Middlebury community. We are the one place in Middlebury where everyone is welcome for free for any reason. People can come here and just be” Hart said.

A final decision will be made on the renovation plans in mid-February. More information and updates about the renovations can be found on the Ilsley Public Library website. All Select Board meetings are open to the public and take place every second and fourth Thursday of the month at 10 a.m. in the Ilsley Library reference room.