Last night was the final library board meeting of the 2010-2011 fiscal year. It was a year inadequately defined as challenging. That word does not contain enough nuances to fully describe the strains placed on staff and board as we absorbed another six figure budget reduction and the specter of yet another two week staff furlough and two week summer shut down. Yet we survived, and if we did not quite thrive, we persevered, we learned, and institutionally and professionally we evolved. The following is a slightly revised version of my comments to the board last evening:
2010-2011 has been the occasion for considerable reflection on the future of libraries in general, and in particular the role of Otis Library as a community asset. There is an existential element to be considered: about our immutability as an institution and the value of our contributions to the common weal, especially in light of the decisions made about what constitutes an essential service and what is determined to be expendable. We spent the year balancing daily operations with the need to prepare and plan for the future. The general solution is a commitment of time and energy, based on the understanding that not making the investment in planning leads to awful consequences. All the pain endured during this past year and the year before was a great antidote to the assumption that we could conduct business as usual, and that as an “acknowledged community asset” we would always have enough, do enough and know enough to survive. The new mantra is test, probe, identify opportunities, collaborate, advocate, think in terms of the library as a community center, and NEVER assume anything!
None of this commitment to change would mean much without a dedicated staff willing to participate in an arduous and frequently stressful planning process. I must not only thank them for agreeing to commit to it but also for arguing that we needed to assume responsibility for our future rather than hunkering down and hoping the bad times would just go away.
Last year I believe outgoing Board president Keith Fontaine remarked that almost everyone loves libraries, but libraries cannot live on love alone. We certainly have ample examples of friends and supporters willing to provide both love and money. Thank you to the Evening with an Author Committee and its peerless chair Millie Shapiro! Kudos to the Edward and Mary Lord Foundation for believing, correctly, that books and materials are at the core of our mission, and supporting us so generously. Thank you to the Friends of Otis Library-Ann Lathrop and the Friends Board- for their generous support for materials and special projects and for stepping up in hard times and giving so generously when it counted. Encomiums to the Sachem Fund, the Esther Gilbert Fund and the Lafayette Family, the Sayet Family; the Elsie Brown Fund for programming, The Norwich Rotary Club and AHEPA for materials, and Bahria Hartman and the Last Green Valley for the support of special projects. A special thanks to Tucker Braddock for bringing us Barry Clifford as a guest speaker. I have undoubtedly left someone out, but this list speaks volumes for the inherent value of libraries to their communities and specifically to the continued importance of this institution to a vibrant, educated Norwich.
Finally, I want to briefly note some of the ways in which our commitment to planning, identifying opportunities and investing in collaborations are already manifesting themselves: This summer, thanks to a Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut grant we begin a pilot reading program with the Wequonnoc School that ensures that reading and libraries remains an integral part of the summer for hundreds of students. Thanks to Sachem Fund we will begin an internship program to cultivate the next generation of librarians among young adults. Working with the Eastern Regional Mental Health Board, library staff will create a guide for libraries on how to interact with young adults who have mental health and substance abuse issues. It is modeled on the behavioral standard set by this library, which includes accepting mental health and substance abuse services. Working with the Southeast Mental Health Authority its staff and clients, we will collaborate on a book group designed to decrease the stigma of mental illness.
I think these and initiatives yet to be envisioned are part of our role as futurists. To borrow from Dr. Steve Matthews, WE are committing to a new model exemplified by inquiry and innovation, thereby acknowledging that the Otis Library will be prepared when called upon to contribute to a future where schools are preparing 21st Century students for jobs that don’t currently exist. We will be using technology that hasn’t been invented to solve problems we don’t yet understand. At the Otis Library we will be testing, probing questioning and identifying needs perhaps even before they are widely recognized as such.