SCARBOROUGH – Six years ago, when Scarborough voters turned down a $6.75 million bond to expand the public library, trustees of the independent nonprofit did not fret. Instead, they stuck out their chins, rolled up their sleeves, and got to work, renovating their existing 13,000-square-foot space into what Director Nancy Crowell proudly proclaims is “one of the very best libraries in the state.”
But now, Crowell said, they’ve gone about as far as they can go. The evidence is clear in her cramped office, shrunk down and robbed of file space to make more room on the main floor. With no place for storage, orphaned papers that also lost homes litter her floor and climb the walls. “We’ve completely renovated the space, we’ve pretty much stripped to the shell and started fresh to build what is here,” Crowell said.
And yet Scarborough’s library is once again starving for space, in both the real and virtual worlds. But this time, library officials are not asking for a bigger building. Instead, they’re asking the public what they want from the library, to see if a larger space is warranted. With that in mind, library officials have launched a listening tour, meeting with various stakeholder groups in order to craft a new strategic plan.
“We feel we’re pretty good at community needs, and one of the things we want to be sure of is that we’re really hearing the community,” said Crowell. “We can make a guess, based on what we’re seeing, and the fact is we’re generally pretty good at guessing, but we want to really make sure we are listening.”
“We’re really going into this with wide-open ears and eyes,” said Nancy Kelleher, chairwoman of the long-range planning committee. “We what to hear what people want.”
The community’s help is needed, library officials said, because the library is dealing with its space limitations at a time of great growth for its programs.
“We’ve always had strategic plans,” Kelleher said. “But the last four or five years, our strategic plans have been less strategy and more survival, because of the economy. Still, we’ve been very, very busy. Programming has really taken off for all ages and the library has become a center of the town, not just a repository for books.
“Work at the library is getting to be more and more while at the same time donations, both public and private, are declining,” she said. “So, even though we think space is our primary need, we really want to hear what it is the public wants from us.”
“What we’re discovering is that the space in the library is becoming inadequate for the uses of the library,” said Anne Janak, chairwoman of the trustees. “So, we want to hear from the public about how they view the library, not only today and next year, but five and 10 years down the road.
“I see space as a need,” said Janak. “But there may be different ways to deal with that and perhaps even broadening the use of the library, based on what the public tells us they want from us.”
“Our stress points right now deal with trying to offer service space for the public,” added Crowell. “We have lots of overlapping needs within the population – different services, different age groups – in a building that doesn’t have an awful lot of meeting space. And that includes our wireless system being overloaded. There are days when it’s very hard to get on the wireless network here.”
In fact, the library recently instituted a password log-on system, to keep people from inadvertently using bandwidth with the smart phones in their pockets.
“Things are changing so fast in the library world these days,” said Crowell, who started in 1977, when the library was in a small cape on Black Point Road, and now heads up a staff of 22, mostly part-timers.
As in Cape Elizabeth, which also is testing the limits of its library facilities, library officials in Scarborough report taking on the role of community and cultural center in recent years. For that reason, and because it’s tough to craft a five- or 10-year plan in a world where technology changes every six months, library officials are seeking public input.
Based on what they hear over the next few months, the library’s strategic planning committee hopes to have a new long-range plan prepared by September.
“I think we’re going to come out with some short-term and long-term goals,” said Kelleher. “I think they’ll be staggered in. We have to be realistic due to the economy, but the board is very excited about this.
“We think we have a very well-run, very conservatively financed organization that is the centerpiece of the town and we’d like to make sure it’s still there down the road as an integral part of Scarborough.
The library operates on a $930,000 annual budget, 86 percent of which is provided by the taxpayers via a town donation. But for that, the library ran roughly 270 programs last year for adults and children – such as genealogy classes, reading clubs, geographic and historical presentations, tax preparation help and movie nights – in addition to circulating 223,000 items. Crowell said that at the retail price of each item (for example, $22 for each of the 88,570 books borrowed last year) the library provided a little more than $4 million in lending services alone.
“Although we’re becoming more and more of a community building,” said Janak, “with the economy the way it is, the library is still a great place for people to come in and use something that doesn’t cost them a penny.”
“The role of the library has definitely changed over the generations,” said Hellerman. “You don’t just quietly tip-toe in and look trough the card catalog any more and sit and read a book.”