What’s Up With The West Branch Library?

west branch libraryLibrarian Karen Kramer stands in a water-damaged staircase. Photos by Jess Benjamin.

A leaky roof, peeling paint—the West Branch Library is ready for renovations. So what’s the holdup?

Just a few blocks removed from the commotion of Davis Square, the West Branch Library is a stately building with prominent columns and elaborate architectural features. Its main entrance—a huge wooden doorway atop a wide set of stairs—is set back from College Avenue, accessible by a sidewalk that’s abutted by gardens on either side.

“We’ve been thinking about the West Branch for a very long time,” says Kate Van Sleet, president of the Board of Library Trustees.

What she means is this: West Branch needs an update.

The library was built in 1909 through funding provided by Andrew Carnegie, and since it’s not an ADA-compliant building, events held there need to be duplicated at another location. Van Sleet explains that the building isn’t “ideally configured”—that is, the children’s room is in the basement, and the only public bathroom is also in the basement, in the children’s room. Utility and accessibility upgrades need to be addressed. And while everyone agrees that it’s a beautiful, historic building—it’s even on the National Register of Historic Places—almost every painted surface is peeling. When it rains, librarians line recycling bins with trash bags to catch the water dripping through the leaky roof.

west branch library

Two years ago, the library initiated a public process to make plans for a West Branch renovation and expansion that would include an auditorium and a makerspace. But now, after objections from community members who say the expansion sacrifices much-needed green space, it’s unclear where the project stands.

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Somerville may be just four square miles, but the city has three libraries: the Central Branch on Highland Avenue, the East Branch on Broadway and, of course, the West Branch.

“Even though this city is very small and all the libraries serve the entire city, each library is a very special neighborhood library for the people within that neighborhood,” Van Sleet says.

according to data provided by the Somerville Library, 311,921 people visited city libraries in the last year, and more than 10,000 children attended their programs and events. The libraries also host programs for teens and adults.

While about 233,282 books were checked out of the libraries last year, the staff isn’t solely committed to printed resources. In fact, nearly 40,000 people are estimated to have used the computers at Somerville libraries in the past year, and librarians offered more than 200 one-on-one technology training sessions to patrons during that time.

“There’s this misconception that everybody has a smart device connected to the internet, but that’s not the case,” explains Glenn Ferdman, director of Somerville’s libraries. Even if you do have internet access, he adds, content is often blocked by a paywall.

west branch library

Libraries have adapted to the digital era by expanding services and collections to include digital media. Downloads for audiobooks, music, movies and comics increased by nearly 75 percent last year. Plus, there’s the invaluable resource of the expert library staff, who often guide patrons through online job applications, resume building or setting up email accounts.

Ferdman says that while it’s impossible to know what technology and information access will look like in a few decades, he wants the West Branch Library to continue to serve the Somerville community, no matter what. “Repairing, renovating and restoring the building, as well as making it accessible, would permit us to provide a 21st-century library in essentially early 20th-century digs,” Ferdman says. “That would allow us to successfully serve the needs of the community—not only for the present, but for the future.”

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The West Branch Library renovation process began with community input gathering nearly two years ago. In the current design, the new library would include renovations and updates to the existing building as well as an extension into the back, making room for a much-needed auditorium that could be used for performances and city meetings, as well as a flexible makerspace in the basement level, which Van Sleet says captures the growing innovative and creative spirit of Somerville.

“[Makerspace] is a very big trend in libraries,” she says. “Libraries are very much being seen these days as more of a destination … and it goes with the way Somerville is. Look at how innovative we are here.”

At a community meeting a little more than a year ago, the city presented a project timeline suggesting that construction could begin as early as September 2016. But that hasn’t happened. While all parties agree that accessibility and interior improvements need to be addressed at the West Branch Library for it to continue providing critical services, some residents don’t think the two pieces of the proposed redesign—renovation and expansion—are necessarily linked. Janet Campbell is a member of the Somerville Garden Club, which maintains the gardens surrounding the West Branch Library. Campbell has been part of a vocal group of citizens advocating against the proposed expansion because it would eliminate the library’s gardens and backyard, a green area in a city severely lacking in parks and open space.

“The garden is a beautiful green space, and it exists now,” Campbell says. “We’re losing our green spaces in Somerville very quickly … We really need to preserve what we have.”

The proposed auditorium is well and good, Campbell says, but it doesn’t need to be attached to the West Branch Library. She suggested that the city find another location instead of destroying one of Davis Square’s few green spaces, especially one in which the Garden Club has already established a structure of maintenance and care that she says would be difficult to replicate from the ground up. Abutters and other residents have also voiced concern about the impact of the extension on surrounding properties, as well as the cost of the project given recent city commitments to the new high school and the Green Line Extension.

While board members say they’re sympathetic to community concerns, Van Sleet hopes the expansion will enable the library to further its commitment to the community.

“I would prefer that we look at it holistically: What do we want for our kids to have 50 years from now?” Van Sleet asks. She fears missing what could be Somerville’s only chance to meaningfully expand the library. “This is our one opportunity,” she says. “We’ve been waiting a whole generation to make a renovation to the West Branch.”

west branch library

The last community meeting for the project took place in November of 2016, and since then, things have been quiet. Board members are eager for the West Branch renovation to proceed but are unsure where the proposal stands. Ferdman had no new information to share related to the project timeline or potential redesigns, but did acknowledge that “there are some internal discussions happening regarding next steps in the project.” City of Somerville spokesperson Jackie Rossetti says the city is working with Ward 6 Alderman Lance Davis, the Capital Projects Department, the Library Department and the design team to schedule additional community updates, and in late April, another public meeting was scheduled for May 10. That meeting was later postponed.

The renovation remains on Somerville’s current capital projects plan with an estimated $7.2 million price tag, including $2.5 million from Community Preservation Act funds. Other library projects, including a renovation for the East Branch and a relocation of the Central Branch to Union Square, are also being considered, according to the plan, but the West Branch renovation is the only one to have received city approval.

In any case, the participation at recent community meetings shows broad public interest and investment in the use of city buildings, which board members and library staff say is critical to the process.

“Whatever we come up with, I’m sure it’s going to be something that will be of great benefit to the community,” Ferdman says. “We’ve been grateful for the process and the input, and we look forward to continuing in that direction.”

This story appears in the May/June 2017 issue of Scout, which is available for free beginning May 11 at more than 220 drop spots throughout Somerville (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription.

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