Embracing its History, the Library Steps into the Future

By Allison Ijams Sargent
June 30, 2017

It has been a blast for librarian, Ann Banks, to watch the reactions of patrons who see the transformed front room of the Fishers Island Library for the first time. “The whole project has been wonderful,” she says, “but the positive reactions have been totally gratifying.” After nine months of work, the renovations are nearly complete. In addition to the refurbished front room, the library now has upgraded technology, rugs, lighting, heating and furniture.

Originally built as a one-room school house in 1888, the building had always had generous proportions and an appealing façade. Its main room boasted large windows and high ceilings. It became the community library in 1914 and its space shifted to accommodate books and circulation materials. As the island grew, pressures on the space have mounted. Technology evolved, insinuating itself into all matter of communication and learning. Storage became an issue. And those light filled windows? They were hidden behind towering bookcases, metal gray and looming. “It got to the point where the library just wasn’t as welcoming a space as we wanted,” says Jon Britt, co-chair of the renovations committee, “we needed to take a step back and look at how the space was used.”

In a search for more square footage and functionality, a number of ideas were put forth and quickly discarded. “We couldn’t add another floor, that would have been way too expensive,” says board president, Sheila Rauch Kennedy, “and we seriously considered expanding down to the basement area but there were water issues and low ceilings. But we needed a long-term solution.” When Bruce Kinlin and Lily Rutherfurd of Kinlin/Rutherfurd Architects were invited to take a look around, they realized that the answer was right in front of them. “The shelving was dominating the room and blocking the light,” says Rutherfurd, “so the idea was to put the books along the edge and use the room in a new way.” The result is a return to the graciously proportioned room that was envisioned by the builders of the one room school house. “The room always had good bones,” says Kennedy, “we wanted to improve and enhance the space and show off its charm.”

Conceiving a workable plan was a gratifying exercise for the leadership at the library as well as for the architects. “It was thoroughly enjoyable working with Bruce and Lily,” says Jon Britt, “and BD construction were responsive and on time.” But it was not easy to work on an historically sensitive building through the winter while keeping the library a functioning island resource. The backroom became the default space and the library never closed. “People took it in stride,” says Ann Banks, “there were no real issues.” The construction compelled the culling of hundreds of books that were literally past their shelf life. “Some titles hadn’t been circulated in ten years,” says Jon Britt, “it was important to get rid of those books that were no longer useful.” Many of the non-fiction titles were given to the Fishers Island School which has been an enthusiastic partner in the renovation project. In fact, it was school superintendent Karen Goodwin who organized an army of school student volunteers to pack and hand move the 240 boxes of books from the library to St. John’s Church for winter storage.

“That was just one example of how much the project was a community effort,” remarks Kennedy, “we were more than halfway through when huge thunderstorms hit, halting everything. But overnight, the word got out to the Fire Department that the job was not done. Members showed up early the next morning with their pick-up trucks and finished the job.” She goes on to say that this level of enthusiasm permeated the whole project. “Everyone was so generous with their time, the island was very responsive and enthusiastic.” For example, Lily Rutherfurd and Bruce Kinlin gave their time pro bono. “That was an easy decision for us,” says Kinlin, “we love Fishers Island and we were happy to do it.” Fundraising also went smoothly. Sarah Rose, the development chair, was thrilled at the support of island residents who enabled the capital campaign to surpass its 250K goal. “In addition to many generous individual donors, the Sanger Fund and an anonymous benefactor gave us generous matching grants,” she says, “this was a great way to encourage donations knowing every gift would be doubled.” There was also the exciting news that the New York State Education Department approved the library’s application to their Construction Aid Program with a grant in the amount of $101,648.

The result of all of the fundraising and the planning and the construction is being felt immediately. The enhanced technology (the tangle of wires is cleverly hidden in the work table’s legs) entices new patrons and the new arrangement of books invites more browsing according to Ann Banks. The only problem? “Everything is perfect and has been very easy to get used to,” she says, “but I keep reaching for the string above my head that used to turn off the light!”

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