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Memory Palaces

Public libraries still matter…now more than ever.

Retail therapy’s a godsend. Handing over my AmEx soothes jangled nerves, but honestly, the most important piece of plastic in my wallet’s always been my library card.

Libraries: where else can you enter, sign up, and walk out with stuff for free?!? And libraries are far more than booklenders: they’re cultural centers, historical lifelines.

During Hurricane Sandy, local library patrons came in droves, not just for free WiFi and electricity, but in search of havens offering shelter, vital information, companionship, refreshments, basic facilities and much-needed diversion. In so doing, many residents (re)discovered how crucial these public resources truly are.

Here are just some of the merits of Fairfield County’s “big three”: Westport, Darien and Greenwich.


The main entrance to Westport Library, at Arnold Bernhard Plaza.

The wonderful Westport Library hosts nearly 1,500 programs annually for adults and children (the Malloy Lecture and May’s annual fundraiser, in particular, are standouts), along with its copious offerings of books and varied media, including downloadable titles and e-books.

For a brief summary of services, click here.

There’s also a mobile catalog for smartphones; a charming café; IT instruction; meeting rooms and a business reading room; a superb reference staff and bookable librarians; advice for reading clubs; a Netflix-sized collection of A/V content on the first floor (audiobooks to Blu-rays); and career guidance, including free executive job consultations/coaching with an organizational psychologist (email orgonic@aol.com for more information).

In summer and winter, the annual book sales are fantastic events (my favorite area sales), with thousands of books, and bookish characters. And the library’s location on the hill at Arnold Bernhard Plaza, overlooking the Saugatuck River, is spectacular.

Marcia Logan, the library’s communications coordinator, speaks to the facility’s mission, seeing librarians as “curators of information.” The WL’s Director, Maxine Bleiweis, she says, seeks to uphold all the “traditional aspects of a library while becoming a cultural center” in the future, and still remaining “just a place where you just come and get books and movies, which we will always do.”

Westport’s future is one of growth, as plans are in the works to add more rooms for business meetings, a bigger café, and an auditorium taking greater advantage of the river view.

At present, dominating the Great Hall is the library’s massive Maker Space—featured on the cover of October’s Library Journal—an area for “people to connect and create” and “take people from imagination to actual production.”

The Maker Space, from above, in the Great Hall.

Logan says that this sense of “community connection” is at the core of Westport Library’s mission—and “is its future.”

So while at present the library may retain a “traditional” scheme to some of its many patrons, it’s simply one of the most beautiful places to visit and read to my mind, although its wide-open ambience awaits a transformation that will dramatically expand its parameters.


The new Darien Library, seen from the Post Road.

The recently minted Darien Library offers a peek into public libraries’ future as information centers. Entering “Main Street,” patrons are confronted with a bookstore feel, as well as five HD TV screens tweeting public comments about the library in real time, and also its latest events, curated by the library’s social-media mage—and de-facto docent—Amanda Goodman.

The Children’s Library at right hosts two dozen programs weekly, with a storytime and toddler’s room as well as a computer area with six terminals (four more sit outside the room), an iPad mounted to a wall, and a giant Microsoft touch-surface table that kids can play games on. The stacks are organized categorically, so titles can be easily located by subject.

A bright and cheery space for toddlers

The kids’ favorite learning tablet.

At the opposite end of Main Street, librarian recommendations and an adjacent café stand near the Fiction stacks. Hidden deceptively to the side is the Community Room with standing room for 220 people, where adult programs, curated by Erin Shea, are held. These include author visits, concerts, slideshows, PowerPoint presentations, book discussions, free Friday film screenings (with popcorn available in the café), and television offerings for visitors.

Movies, lectures, TV and more, with seating for some 150 patrons

Downstairs is a public art gallery, along with a nifty teens room and the Power Library, featuring an array of home-office aides for residents, including a banner printer, a laminator and shredder. In addition, the digital media lab—or DML—provides gear for private use (e.g., conversion machines taking VHS to DVD, a green screen and A/V editing equipment).

Teenagers can write on the walls while reading magazines!

Outside the DML are many public computer terminals. Nearby, however, behind the scenes, is a genuine children’s treat: a sorting machine.

Down the conveyor belt, the books and such come and then they’re arranged and ordered, for quick return to Main Street and beyond.

“Whenever little kids visit the library, this is our favorite thing to show them,” Shea says.

When materials are returned to the library, the machine and staff process them, getting media back up on Main Street in about 30 minutes. This rapidity reflects the library’s efficient design, in which, essentially, the future is the present.

For instance, on the second floor, you’ll find rentable writer’s rooms, a Bloomberg terminal and business center, and the core of the research center, which is divided into “GLADES,” to “enhance browsing,” according to Shea. “The idea came from the idea that if you’re lost in a forest, and you come to a glade, you are, like, ‘Oh, I get it now.’"

The GLADES here are filled with books and light.

In a nutshell, if, say, you want a travel guide, head to “Places,” where, say, next to a Baedeker for Germany will be travel videos about Germany and German language books. These particular stacks are multimedial, not merely book-based.

There’s much more to Darien than this, but visitors will, I think, be most impressed with the library’s focus on such integrated multimedia, information and technology, and its awareness that it is more than just your usual library, from Main Street to its many GLADES.


Greenwich Library’s decorative display

A couple words about Greenwich Library: go there.

Boasting a catalog of some 500,000 titles, it’s Connecticut’s largest public library. After entering, turn right: featured titles concentrate on books germane to the month (November’s focus, for example, was Alzheimer’s Disease). Behind this table stand series of stacks crammed with recent reads: nonfiction and fiction, large print, paperback and hardcover.

Then, climb the crisp, curling staircase and visit the Flinn Gallery, which hosts fine art on a rotating basis. Around the corner, the collection of rentable DVDs, CDs, video games and other media—including framed art—will overwhelm. Beyond, the open Fiction/Mystery/Literature stacks will have what you’re looking for, from Adams to Zola. 

The sheer volume on offer here—computer terminals, business/reference resources, curated bulletin boards and concert series, these last at the Cole Auditorium—will thoroughly impress.

In addition to the Peterson Business Wing in the building’s addition (need a Bloomberg terminal? There’s one here), a Health Information Center on the opposite end allows for personal medical research by the spacious Periodical Reading Room. Downstairs, Elton’s Café abuts the Technology Training Center, with 18 laptops available to train the public and staff in technological skills.

But—want private quiet study areas? Got ’em…upstairs. A “Teen Central” location, just for your kids? There’s a big one just next to the Flinn. How about material for toddlers and wee ones? Hit the third floor, where the children’s library offers a cornucopia of diversion and learning.

And, if you can’t make it to central Greenwich, why not have an item shipped to a local affiliated branch near you and held? Once you’re signed up, media can be forwarded to the Byram Shubert, Cos Cob or the Perrot Memorial Library. (Note: Old Greenwich’s Perrot, while affiliated with Greenwich, is a separately administered entity.) This is possible through Interlibrary Loan throughout the state, as well, but often, hard-to-find books are easier, and quicker, to locate in Greenwich, as the catalog is so extensive.

Greenwich Library also is compiling a local oral history collection of the town from its current residents, something unique to the facility.

“This project, along with empowering patrons through the Technology Center, is one of the things that distinguishes us,” as the library’s Public Relations Officer, Kate Petrov, notes. “It’s a compilation of stories that volunteers have collected from residents throughout the years…to get recollections of the communities.”

But while the library preserves the past, it also seeks to grow in the future. The Periodical Reading Room area is where it’s “looking to expand as part of our strategic plan,” Petrov says.

“We think about space planning, and it’s an open-space floor plan. … We’re thinking, ‘How can we better use this space for patrons? That’s what great: it’s easy to move the stacks around and accommodate our patrons.”

Space itself limits what I can say about Greenwich Library. And, anyway, I’m biased: I grew up using its facilities, prior to the 32,000-square foot addition. I loved the old building, but this public library is pretty astounding.

Greenwich’s bright, windowed Peterson Wing.

The old meets new as you walk toward Greenwich Library’s entrance

Fairfield County library staff can help you control and use knowledge and information, whatever your needs or wants. And, in a day and age in which we often feel there’s less that we can control in our lives, that’s one of the most empowering feelings in the world.

So, if you ever ask yourself, why go to the library? I hope that, after reading this post, you’ll wonder, why am I not in a library?

More Area Libraries

Ferguson Library—Stamford’s Main Branch is excellent, and its affiliate branches, Harry Bennett, South End and Weed Memorial & Hollander Branches, offer fine resources.

New Canaan Library—Planning a revamp, New Canaan is a public lifeline.

Norwalk Library—Norwalk’s Main Branch has great staff and facilities; its SoNo branch is particularly rich in children’s resources.

Wilton Library—A beautiful place, and I love their Program Podcasts.

Ridgefield Library—Another beaut undergoing renovation, priming for the future.

Recommended Read

During the winter months, I always read through Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. Click here for Volume 1 of The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, annotated by Leslie S. Klinger (Norton). Winter is the perfect time for classic mysteries, and Holmes is the classic detective. Lose yourself in this gigantic tome!

A Fine Place To Read

If you happen to be in Old Greenwich, stop at the Perrot Memorial Library’s Reading Room. It’s a small, cozy space: well-windowed, quiet and nookish. And upstairs, enjoy this little bright spot as well. At the top of the stairs, this alcove is perfect for reading. Fine places to get booksy.

The most “literary” sofa in the state


David PodgurskiDavid Podgurski is a writer and editor who has lived in Fairfield County his entire life. A former books columnist for The Stamford Advocate and Greenwich Time newspapers. Feel free to email David.

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