ROCKPORT — The meeting room at Rockport Opera House filled to capacity April 29 with residents curious to hear what a consultant has to say, so far, about his study of the town’s library. Steve Podgajny was hired last winter to assess programs and services, with an anticipated report date of June 3. The April meeting was a midstream gathering, and a chance for Podgajny to talk about intelligence gathered so far.
The report will deliver analysis and recommendations for the town to consider as it determines the library’s future course.
“My report will be one option, not in consideration of any site,” said Podgajny, towards meeting’s end when he was asked by Rockport resident Owen Casas about exactly what he was going to produce for the town with the $4,100 contract he was working under. “I am out of the site business. It will be pure program with the defensible logic.”
The future of Rockport’s public library has stirred two years of strong debate and politics, as the town determines what and where it should be. While libraries in general are undergoing self analyses in the digital age, the discussion is especially intense in Rockport with some citizens advocating for alternate locations while others want it to remain on the existing site, on the corner of Russell Ave. and Union Street in Rockport Village.
The ongoing discussion has resulted in two current actions: Hiring Podgajny to review the library’s programs, and engineering firm CES, Inc., at $9,800, to assess the existing building and infrastructure.
Pdogajny is the retiring executive director of Portland Public Library, who took on the Rockport job last January. The April 29 meeting was to update citizens about his progress, and encourage others to contact him with thoughts and opinions before the end of May, his cut-off date.
His goal, he said, is to help the town determine the role of its own library well into the future, and forge consensus.
“People are depending on this process to come up with grounded outcome,” he said, at the meeting.
But, he warned, “consensus is not unanimity.”
Pdogajny said he spent three full days visiting Rockport, and held 18 meetings with various groups and individuals. He has spent six hours with library staff working through various aspects of planning, and has received 26 substantive, “thoughtful, really interesting” emails from citizens.
Commonalities have emerged, he said, and for the “vast majority there is room for improvement in library services.”
There is also strong concern about safety and parking.
Architecturally speaking, there is a demand for natural lighting, and a cost-effective building.
“Huge improvements in lighting will take care of that,” he said. “Solar. This is a moment when all of those things should be considered.”
The existing library is perceived as operationally too expensive, and there is a concern about taxes.
Despite a library endowment fund, Rockport taxpayers shoulder the bulk of financially supporting their library, as do taxpayers in every Maine town with their own public libraries. There are no state reimbursements for municipal libraries, even though most communities highly value them.
Rockport Public Library’s lending was slightly up in 2014, Pdogajny said; but, he warned, in general, book lending rates across libraries are declining. That trend is forcing all libraries to reevaluate their programs, and how to deliver them.
And because reading hard-copy books is a diminishing reality, the need for more stacks is likewise shrinking. But, there are still going to be library patrons, he said.
“You just don't need to build another 4,000-5,000 square feet just for stacks,” he said.
Another contributing factor to lower lending rates is Maine’s popular Minverva program, a network of 60 libraries in the state that share their collections. Every day, couriers are driving the state, delivering and retrieving books in large tote bags.
The value returned on inter-library loans (4.6 million items in Maine borrowed in the humanities alone), “is clearly a huge value being generated for people.” It is a system used by readers and researchers throughout Maine.
On one recent day in Rockport, Pdogajny noted heavy totes filled with 60-80 books that were arriving at Rockport library, either on loan from other libraries, or books that were being returned to Rockport’s collection.
“Libraries have always evolved,” he said. “Since 1949, Rockport’s has had four renovations, with incremental projects.
“It is not abnormal to reinvest in a library,” he said.
Now is a moment for Rockport to engage in a broader conversation about its village and connections to other parts of town, he said.
“It’s a bigger question than just the library,” Pdogajny said, citing the need to look 20 years down the road.
The Library Committee had posed the idea of building a new library on the former Rockport Elementary School site on West Street, a proposal that sparked the current debate, and study. The discussion has been geographical — what are the real boundaries of Rockport Village — and practical: How accessible the library is to residents in other neighborhoods of Rockport? It is not a new discussion in the largely rural town that is about to celebrates its 125 birthday.
The library debate has “softened,” said Pdogajny. “There is much more respect for different opinions. It is an energizing conversation. There has been a lot of stress and dynamics that have not necessarily been healthy.”
When asked to clarify his characterization of “softening,” he responded: “I meant the acceptance of diversity of opinion.”
The town currently regards its library as center for lifelong learning and collaborative learning, a place for hands-on exploration and traditional research, and a gathering spot that provides users with a sense of belonging. It is a refuge for quiet reading and reflection. It is also an icon for inclusivity and accessibility.
Pdogajny wants to go deeper into the conversation, he said, and “try to put rationale behind the building program statement so that in June, by me representing the library, [there is a report of] how we got to something, other than me saying something like this should be a really good idea.”
How Rockport proceeds with its library will be unique unto its own community, he said, advising the town not to compare itself statistically with other similarly-sized Maine or coastal towns. Rockport does have “a couple of other cohorts who have the same per capita income,” he said, but drawing comparisons, or even using such data, “might get things off track from what you want to accomplish as a town.”
Public libraries are not mandatory, said Pdogajny. The level of passion, “tells you something about the soul of the town.”
Requests for comments, questions, and ideas emailed directly to Podgajny at email@example.com.
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