By Roy Fuchs, Patch Contributor | May 13, 2019
And a vision is just what the Westport Library's Executive Director Bill Harmer brought to his new assignment.
Mr. Harmer came to Westport four years ago, from Chelsea, Michigan, where he was Director of what The Library Journal had named the "Best Small Library in America."
He inherited a newly minted plan to renovate the then almost 30 year old Westport Library — a high tech, state-of-the-art facility on a larger footprint with a cost approximating $40 million, and complicated by non-trivial service interruptions.
Harmer gathered community input then gave the architectural firm that conceived that design, Henry Myerberg's HMA2, a new directive — more modest in some regards, bolder in others.
He sought to "help assure that libraries are at the forefront of a revolutionary movement in community education, experience and expression."
Achieving a more manageable cost was essential, as was flexibility. This Library is a community center, an anchor of our downtown, and so requires a major space for public cultural and entertainment programs, more meeting spaces, more space for housing growing collections of printed and digital media, a contemporary children's library, an enhanced Maker Space, updated technology throughout, and perhaps a larger café, more of a store, and expanded amenities.
All in the existing footprint, and with no service interruptions.
Harmer recently talked to Y's Men, emphasizing that he and his team are about to "deliver a state-of-the-art library, on time and in budget."
The budget was halved, to $19.5 million. The state provided a $1 million grant. Once the town added $5 million the Community Campaign for the Transformation Project was brought to life, and opened the door for private donations of $15 million.
Come to the June 23 Ribbon Cutting. You'll start your walk through by coming in through the new main entry on Jesup Green. Change is all around you. What was the Great Hall is now a larger and largely open space with a raised ceiling and floor to ceiling windows that bathe this vast room in sunlight.
Walk past the new service desk and into the Hub. There you'll see best sellers, new books, DVDs and curated collections showcased for those looking for what's new.
On your left is a unique eight feet high stepped structure containing book shelves whose carpeted steps meant for casual reading.
Walk away from the Hub, around the stepped structure, and your'e in the Christian J. Trefz Forum, built with a $1 million cornerstone donation by Christian and Eva Trefz.
The Trefz Forum may be the Library's most dramatic and flexible space, with over 6,000 sq ft of workspace. Then when the occasion arises it becomes an event space seating over 600 people — no more standing in the hall outside the outgrown and outdated McManus Room.
A stage at the far end features one of the largest video walls in the state, and theater quality sound and lighting systems for live streaming, broadcasting and filming of major events.
First up on the Forum stage, on June 4, will be BOOKED for the evening, honoring award-winning virtuoso pianist and Westporter Fredric Chiu.
Spotted around this main level are 16 meeting and conference rooms, some with state-of-the-art video and conferencing equipment — even one with a wet bar — and three large rooms for gatherings of 40 to 120 people. Gone are the difficulties of scheduling meetings.
There's also the Library of Things — the Maker Space and the Hacker Space, with hands on items including 3D printers, CNC machines, laser cutters, sewing machines. And board games, musical instruments, VR consoles, a fold up kayak and a mobile podcasting studio. All in a space available 24 hours a day.
One of the real gems are state-of-the-art audio and video studios, designed with the guidance of Grammy award winning sound engineer, and Westporter, Rob Fraboni. They provide audio production and audio and video post production for recording and producing podcasts or songs, and for completing videos, all with support to help you learn.
There's a new and larger café that opens at 8:00 am — before the Library. It offers outdoor seating, and opens into the Sheffer Room, making it an even more inviting reading room.
The café also has a public kitchen and a Baker Space, to do for foodies what the Maker Space does for techies.
Another jewel is the children's library. A substantial gift from Roz and Bud Siegel brought it to life. Go up the broad staircase, into the "best real estate in the building." There's a fully renovated program room — also with new windows and a higher ceiling. There's new furniture, and books and toys, all to encourage our youngest to start enjoying their Library.
Also on the second floor is a five feet wider hall, providing working space for up to 40 people, and doubling as a balcony for Forum events.
Much of the book collection now resides on the river level, though you'll see shelving on all three levels. Likewise digital. The digital book collection has grown ten fold in the last couple of years, there's a streaming music service, and digital magazines that enable visually impaired users to manipulate font sizes.
There are more ADA compliant spaces and amenities, and assisted listening devices. There is also the "best and most powerful WiFi in the community, and an abundance of power outlets."
The Ribbon Cutting will offer a cornucopia of events — music, dance, film, family activities, a live podcast by Miggs Burroughs and brother Trace, a writer's workshop, story time in children's library, art, filming live stories, and more.
You can view a photo exhibit tracking the project's progress shot and curated by renowned photographer Dick Frank. Get a preview at https://www.wltransformationproject.org.
One Y's Man was so taken by Harmer's presentation that he commented "You've put five pounds of potatoes in a three pound bag, and have room left over."
Photos by Ted Horowitz