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Sarah Lester guides the Maplewood Library into a new age

An artist's rendering of the adult reading room that will exist when the Maplewood Library's expansion comes to fruition. The floor-to-ceiling windows will look out on Maplewood Park.

To get a sense of the energy of the Maplewood Public Library, look no further than the library’s website. Like the most popular, brilliant party guest, the website is brimming with information, ideas, connections, life. Here’s news about an upcoming conversation on just and resilient communities; here’s the Instagram feed. Here’s information about virtual story time, and about an ongoing art exhibition. Here’s an anti-racist reading list; here’s a link for teens, and one for foodies.

The website encapsulates the library’s logo and slogan: Maplewood Library, Open For All. And boy is it. Before COVID hit, the town’s library system averaged 1,000 visitors a day. Four out of five residents have a library card and, on the last day before the statewide shutdown in March, patrons checked out 4,000 materials – a testament both to the Maplewood community and to the library’s importance within it.

It was not so very long ago that the tagline might have seemed a stretch: in 2007, a short-lived uproar erupted when the library’s board voted to close the doors between 2:45 and 5 p.m. on weekdays in order to escape the hordes of middle schoolers who invaded when school let out. The controversy faded quickly, as the library worked with the middle school to create better after school programming for students.

It has become a distant memory under Sarah Lester, who was named director in 2012, and who believes the mission of the library is to provide information – and a space – to all who seek it. “I really felt like if we are a community organization [we must be] open to all,” Lester explains. She has been as good as her word, expanding access to materials – one of her first acts was to make the library part of a regional partnership that makes six million items available to Maplewood card holders – and overseeing an explosion in the number of library events.

Sarah Lester, who was named library director in 2012, is credited with bringing indefatigable energy and an explosion of programs to the library.

“Sarah is a special leader...she really is,” says Ellen Davenport, the former mayor and current treasurer of the library’s private foundation. “Life with Sarah is exciting.”

Now Lester and her board of directors, along with the foundation, are aiming to make the literal space the library occupies as exciting and dynamic as the programming, with an ambitious $20 million renovation at the main library that will bring the building into the 21st Century and provide nearly 10,000 more square feet. While the library is hoping for an $8 million grant from the state that will allow the project planning to start immediately, it already has secured $10 million from the town and raised $1 million from donors, a whopping amount given Maplewood’s size.

“It’s been a great effort,” says Davenport. “In times like these I’m always amazed at how generous people are with their time and money.”

Lester is more succinct. “People believe in Maplewood,” she says. “That’s where the generosity comes from.”

An imagined view of the proposed addition from the park -- if the trees were invisible!

They also believe in the library. Lester notes that a recent Pew Foundation poll shows that, in a divided nation, libraries are the most trusted institution there is. “We are free and open to all and we are apolitical and we are here to serve,’’ says Lester.

Libraries, she explains, can anchor communities. The library addition is meant to create the space that will allow the library to be the anchor – and the pride – of the community, or perhaps simply reflect that it already is both of those things.

Since space around the library is limited, the plan is to go up, not out. Conceptual drawings by Sage and Coomb, a New York architecture firm whose guiding principle is its belief that well-designed public buildings strengthen community, show an additional, airy floor, with a bank of windows facing the park. Lester says the addition will re-orient the building, so that the park is once again visible from the entrance (as it was when the library first opened in 1956); indeed the park will be a focal point from many of the rooms in the new design.

The renovation will also provide above-ground community space, and a dramatic public space called the Forum, that will function as such spaces did in ancient Rome: as seating for events, or just for lounging for those hanging out or quietly talking with friends. Lester is delighted that the community space will have its own entrance, and ADA access will mean it really will be easily available to all.

Sarah Lester credits her staff for the library's quick response to the pandemic, and the library's community outreach, as well as its awesome website.

That space will allow the library to continue to offer, and even to expand, community conversations and festivals such as this past September’s discussion between Knight Foundation president and CEO Alberto Ibargüen – a Columbia High School graduate – and New York Times deputy managing editor Rebecca Blumenstein, a longtime Maplewood resident. And despite the pandemic, its Ideas Festival – a series of conversations about all sorts of topics among people with a connection to Maplewood – is still on track for this fall.

“We have such a wealth of [talent] in our town” says Lester. “The creativity is so amazing, so to not tap into that is unimaginable.”

But this programming in no way detracts from its core service: access to information. Its mission, says Lester, is “not only to level the playing field, but provide information for all the people.” As well as the headline grabbing talks with important people, the library’s schedule includes a class for job-hunters and a YouTube channel devoted to children.

The proposed expansion includes a set of wide open steps that look out on the park. Tagged "The Forum" the steps are reminiscent of the public gathering spots in ancient Rome – a place to hang out, to study, to read, to talk quietly with friends.

And the library addition focuses on the core aspects of a library. It will provide a much-needed children’s room, a teen reading room and a maker space; it will double the number of meeting rooms and significantly increase computer terminals, group tables and workstations. The architect’s presentation noted that 15 percent of Maplewood residents do not have home internet access; the library logs nearly 57,000 public computer sessions in a year – which works out to about 180 sessions a day.

Lester says that one of the library’s first acts when the pandemic hit was to strengthen its Wi-Fi signal so that it could offer 24-hour connectivity outside both of its buildings. And it has reached out to the school district – there are links to school programs on its website – to find out how it can help serve students during this difficult time. She adds that there are librarians who have personal connections with Maplewood teens: those employees have been in contact with those students to ensure they are getting the information, and the access, they need.

In fact, Wi-Fi access was just one of a whole host of changes the library embraced as it moved online: it now has a self-checkout app and curbside pickup, as well as a complete lineup of virtual programming, in addition to being open at 25 percent capacity at both branches.

Lester interviewed Maplewood poet, author, and reporter Tina Kelley in 2019 as she was awarded the literary prize as part of the Maplewood Ideas Festival. The festival was spearheaded by Lester to celebrate the thoughtful, creative people with connections to the town. Photo credit: Franck Goldberg

And while the library is careful to remain apolitical – a notion at the heart of everything it does – it also is not afraid to take a stand. Following the protests that erupted after the killing of George Floyd, the library board released a statement of support. And it committed itself to finding room in its schedule for additional programming: this time for nothing less than democracy building.

It all brings to mind the famous quote by the Roman orator Marcus Tullius Cicero, which the architects also highlighted in their presentation: “If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.”

With a little bit of luck, Maplewoodians will soon have everything they need in one special spot.

Tia Swanson can still visualize each of the libraries that shaped her life. None had broad, sweeping views of a park.

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