Monday, April 6, 2009

Three Thoughts on the Closing of Warren Memorial

Nightly grad classes, technical difficulties, daddy duty, and a job that actually pays the bills have all conspired to prevent me from staying on top of the closing of Warren Memorial Library in a timely manner. Nevertheless, a few thoughts on the situation:

The Warren Memorial Foundation's (WMF) silence is deafening and could ultimately hamper the organization's ability to carry out its mission.
Since the initial announcement of the library's imminent closing on Friday, March 6, the Friends of the Warren Memorial Library (and its antecedent Facebook group) have driven the narrative in this story. To be sure, this is partly due to the fact that the Friends naturally star in the stories they are inspiring. But the WMF's decision to either communicate through one board member or its decision to remain publicly mum have only accentuated the degree to which the protestors are able to frame this story.

The fact that the designated spokesman, Rene Daniel, was not serving on the board when the foundation voted to renovate the library in 2002-2003 lessened his credibility when he was required to defend the WMF against accusations that the library's closure has more to do with the Foundation's financial mismanagement of the aforementioned renovation than the board's passive role in the recent downturn of the stock market ("More Warren Library News"). Moreover, Daniel's recent declaration that he doesn't "believe the board owes [activists] an explanation" of the board's financials and for its decision to close the library is perfectly emblematic of the bullheaded approach the foundation has assumed in dealing with the resistance to close the library.

And while the WMF's tight-lipped, stuffed-ear approach has helped their cause by effectively starving the Friends of any information they can use to set actionable goals (about a month into their protest, the activists are still merely resigned to giving its best Jerry Maguire impersonation by hopefully--and vaguely--begging to help make the library financially solvent), the WMF's turtle-shell approach ultimately disrespects the people the foundation was created to serve. Consequently, such a well-publicized "fuck you" (excuse the harsh language, but there's no better way to describe it) threatens to undermine public trust and confidence in the trustees, both which are needed if the foundation can continue to carry out its mission.

Friends of the Warren Memorial Library need to make a better case for why Westbrook needs two libraries.
Nearly anytime my wife and I borrow a book, DVD, or a magazine, we go to Warren Memorial. We've attended book club meetings at the library, gone to concerts, supported the library financially with my regular overdue fees, and our daughter has spent the last three or four Fridays hanging out at Bouncing Babies. Put simply, we should be a natural constituency for the Save the Warren Library! cause. Alas, we are not.

That's because we have not convinced ourselves--let alone anyone else--why the City of Westbrook or its residents should fund two libraries only three-quarters of a mile away from one another. When a private foundation funded one library and the City funded another, I was thrilled to brag about the quirky fact that our small city had two outstanding independent libraries right down the paved ribbon from each another. Now that the private foundation isn't at all interested in paying for that service, though, such a luxury just seems excessive-- regardless of the economic climate. Moreover, my concerns about duplicative services are matched by my interest in what the foundation has in mind in terms of diversifying Westbrook's cultural offerings. To be sure, the WMF could've helped me (and themselves) by immediately complementing their plans to close the library with specific plans for the building's future, but I am intrigued by the possibilities the building provides.

The Friends' reliance on nostalgia as an argument has not convinced me Walker is unable to create those same memories (or indeed has created those same memories) for other families, nor has their warranted fist-shaking at the WMF convinced me the City should open its pocketbook any wider than is required to accept Warren Memorial's collection.

The City Council should consider only the best interests of Walker Memorial Library.
The brouhaha between the Warren Memorial Library and the Friends is a spat between a private foundation and its patrons. Therefore, the City Council should consider the Warren Memorial situation only from the perspective of the effects the library's closing would have on the library funded by taxpayer dollars. Namely, City Councilors should judge whether Walker Memorial's acceptance of Warren Memorial's 30,000-book/video collection would make it a better library, not whether a decision against taking the books would prolong--or perhaps even void--the closing of Warren. Moreover, the City Council should evaluate what services Walker currently provides and tweak them to cater to post-Warren demands.

Revising Walker's policies such as the lack of Saturday hours and re-scheduling activities to cater to a broader audience should be the focus of tonight's meeting, not what the City can do to save a library that doesn't want saving.

- John C.L. Morgan


Anonymous said...

While all your comments are relevant, you are overlooking that the closing on the Warren Library is an issue the City Council needs to consider as the loss of this resource is hitting the community and will hit the taxpayers. Walker does not have the staff, materials or facility to be the only library in the city. So it's in the best interest of the City Council to explore what the loss of Warren will do and the bottom line is it's going to cost the city. Even accepting the materials from the Warren Foundation is going to eat up a lot of Walker staff time to sort through, process and then figure out where to house 30,000 books, etc. If you look at the shelves of Walker and see the old books you can see they haven't even had time to maintain their current collection.

As far as what the loss of Warren will mean and why Walker can't substitute - Warren gives the people that go there a small, welcoming library to go to where Walker has a big library feel. There's talk of the City opening a branch which would help fill this need for certain people to have a more local feeling library to go to, but it's still going to cost the City to run a branch if one ever opens in the old middle school. Also, Warren had many great programs that Walker couldn't provide for whatever reason and while Walker is currently just struggling to get by, programs probably won't be fitting into their big picture as they are stuck trying to figure out how to even be the only library in Westbrook to circulate books. If you read the editorials printed from people that use Warren in PPH and the AJ you would see that Warren fills a different need and it's more than being nostalgic.

Anonymous said...

I was glad to read your remarks about the closure of the Warren Library - like you, our family frequented the Warren library and we loved all aspects of it, including the neighborhood-like feel. I am very sad that it is closing. However, I think the effort to convince a private foundation that they have an obligation to keep the library open is a fruitless one. Ultimately, it is their decision how to spend their money as long as it is in line with the foundation's mission. I think the time and effort spent on saving the library would be better spent on figuring out how to replicate the wonderful parts of the Warren library at the Walker (Saturday hours seem to be a no-brainer!! We're going to the PPL now because of that.), as well as suggesting some ideas for the building of the former Warren library.

Anonymous said...

The Friends group is only trying to save the library that they love and they're up against an immoral group of thoughtless bastards. It is a tough fight. But shouldn't something be done? The arrogant silence from the Board is ridiculous. What I'm struggling to understand (and I think this is what frustrates many of the Friends supporters) is why fund and operate a community library when you don't really care about its existence? What's the ulterior motive here? Or is it just complete stupidity and bad planning on the part of an inept board? Attn: Warren Memorial Library board members - are you brain dead? Do you read/listen to the news? Why haven't you responded in a responsible manner to the mess that YOU have created? We're all listening...

Anonymous said...

This town is too small to support 2 libraries essentially across the street from one another. There I said it, the rogue voice of practicality has arrived. I know I am probably going to get pounced on by the frothing rabid supporters of Warren, but so be it. A city of 16,000 that abuts the largest city in the state does not need multiple libraries.

The city will be getting the books and videos, which hopefully will build up Walker's anemic collection. Maybe together they can form 1 decent library - maybe a Warren Wing of the Walker Library would be an option. But really, Gorham, Scarborough, Windham, Falmouth - 1 library

Liz said...

"This town is too small to support 2 libraries essentially across the street from one another."

Really? I wonder how they both managed to stay so busy all these long years, then. Whether or not Westbrook "needs" two libraries is irrelevant to this situation. Practicality is not the point.

Anonymous said...

"Practicality is not the point."

Busy? Really? When is the last time you waited in a line at either library? The first time I went to Walker for some relatively obscure research, I had a librarian leafing through books for me.

Don't get me wrong - I am adamantly pro-library, but why dilute the holdings between two mutually exclusive systems?

Walker is cutting staff and hours to stay within budget after bond-funded repairs, Warren is staggering from ill-conceived and badly managed renovations, and can no longer operate off the interest from its endowment. Divided one fails, the other flounders. United Westbrook gets a halfway decent library.

Liz said...

Referring to the "frothing, rabid supporters of Warren," no, practicality is not the point. Forgive me for not making myself clear. These people are simply experiencing an emotional response to the closure of an institution that has been an important part of their lives for a very long time. That does not have anything to do with the lack of practicality in having two libraries.

While I am very sad to see Warren close, I also use the Walker Library and will support them fully in this transition. They will need all the help they can get from the community.

Lastly, the board of Warren should have hired a PR representative as well as an attorney. I think the PR person would have been a more valuable resource.