June 21, 2018
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Rockport needs room for books; let’s build a new library

George Danby | BDN
George Danby | BDN
By Kathleen Meil, Special to the BDN

You may have heard there is a contingent of downtown Rockport residents who oppose building a bigger and better library at the Rockport Elementary School site. They want to keep the library where it is now. To boost their case, they have hopelessly muddled the facts and have attacked the meticulous, transparent process that led to the Rockport Elementary School recommendation.

But the debate has taken a strange twist lately, as opponents to moving the library have adopted an odd argument: Rockport residents oppose a bigger library at the Rockport Elementary School site, and those residents should not be able to vote on the issue.

Let’s first clarify the facts.

Rockport’s library is charming and beloved, but it has a problem: It is cramped. Books are stacked on top of shelves, and a book has to be thrown out for every book added to the collection. The 120 visitors a day — 32,000 people per year — share one bathroom, and there is only one dedicated library parking spot, set aside for the handicapped. There is no group meeting space, no quiet reading area, no manageable work space for librarians or storage area for extra chairs and tables.

During an impartial and extensive listening tour conducted last fall to solicit input about the library, Rockport residents praised their librarians but described the library’s physical space as “cramped,” “jammed up” and “too small.” Rockport residents showed they want more from their library than simply a place to check out books. People are craving a home for books and technology, a gathering space for meetings and presentations, and an inclusive environment for all ages, including young adults.

Those are a few of the reasons an independent steering committee suggested a new library be built on the empty Rockport Elementary School site just a half-mile around the corner. After reviewing eight possible locations, including its present site, the committee unanimously recommended the Rockport Elementary School site because it provides space for a new building with plenty of accessible parking and the option for expansion as the library continues to grow.

The current building offers little room for growth. The current library is just over 3,000 square feet, but a recent study shows the library — with its collection of 32,000 print volumes and 4,000 non-print items, including audio books, DVDs, CDs, digital downloads, e-readers, musical instruments and more, plus space for staff and patrons — operates as though it were in a 6,566 square foot building.

The current site could conceivably hold a facility up to 10,000 square feet if built to the limits of its lot. But that would require eliminating the precious little outdoor space there now, and parking would still be an issue.

More importantly, what about future growth for the community? Attendance at the library has more than doubled over the past 20 years, and that trend is expected to continue.

A new facility adjacent to the ballpark on the Rockport Elementary School site could live up to Rockport’s needs and aspirations without losing the comfortable, friendly, cozy Maine-style library residents love. A new library building could also provide a gateway to the harbor and downtown businesses, plus serve as an anchor for an expanded village. It would preserve the playing fields and green space so valuable to us all, while providing adequate parking and ease of access of West Street for residents of all Rockport neighborhoods.

The Rockport Select Board will soon decide whether Rockport residents will have a chance to vote next fall for or against a library on the Rockport Elementary School site. Opponents plan to attend a future meeting to argue the public should not get the chance to vote. Isn’t a vote exactly how Rockport residents should be able to voice their opinion?

I encourage residents to attend the select board meeting to help preserve our ability to vote on this important issue. A full public hearing is scheduled for 7 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 5, at the Rockport Opera House, and the select board will accept written comments emailed to librarypublichearing@town.rockport.me.us.

Kathleen Meil is chairwoman of the Rockport Library Committee.

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