Photo: Residents in the que to speak about the temporary transfer of the Belmont Public Library’s Chirldren’s Room to the Benton Library.
It was past William and Kate’s bedtime, but their mom, Jess Hausman, decided it was worth missing some shuteye to present their letters before the Belmont Select Board to keep the children’s room open as the new Belmont Public Library is built.
With the demolition of the library just months away, the Hausman family and other residents brought their worries that the children’s room and its services were still up in the air due to residents’ concerns.
“Dear Select Bood – Plees ceep the chidrins sechsins open,” wrote Kate, 6.
“I saw my younger child go through the process of becoming an early reader this summer. A critical aspect was her looking through and selecting her own books,” said Hausman in prepared remarks. “Fluency in reading and interacting with books should be cultivated in childhood,” said Hausman.
By the end of an hour of presentations, William, 8, and Kate will be able to peruse and check out books at the independent Everett C. Benton Library after the Select Board unanimously approved temporarily transferring the Jane Gray Dustan Children’s Room collection to the independent library on Oakley Road during the construction of the new public library.
“Very excited to see the Benton this way,” Kathleen Keohane, chair of the Board of Library Trustees, told the Belmontonian after the board’s decision on Monday, Aug. 7.
Later at the meeting, the Board approved a Memorandum of Understanding in which the town will manage the library at 75 Oakley Rd., on the corner of Oakley and Old Middlesex roads. The town will return the building to the Friends of the Benton Library’s board with the completion of the new public library in the summer of 2025.
With the closing of the Public Library rapidly approaching, it was imperative for the trustees to find alternative locations for its services. While new locations for adult circulation and services (Beech Street Center) and staff (Chenery school) were easy to settle on, it took most of the summer working with town officials and the board of the non-profit Benton Library to hammer out a deal to bring the children’s collection to the former branch library.
Finding a home for the children’s room was the final critical component of the trustee’s pre-construction plans. Without a dedicated space for children’s services, the Belmont Library system would likely lose its state certification and membership to the Minuteman Library Network and likely forego state funds.
But the trustees’ plan hit a snag as abutters and neighbors of the library roundly criticized it during a presentation before the Select Board in late July. While adamant that neighbors were not against the library using the facility, several residents said the area could not accommodate the anticipated influx of vehicles bringing children to the Benton with the proposed 50 hours, compromising the safety of both neighborhood and visiting children and other pedestrians.
After the first Select Board meeting, Keohane met with three neighborhood representatives. But it was apparent to Keohane that the residents weren’t especially interested in an actual compromise. One of the residents, Marc Caporini of Indian Hill Road, speaking at Monday’s meeting, told the board that negotiations on the prospective hours must start with a “pilot” program with 20 hours a week, a two-thirds cut in the current children’s hours, which the trustees quickly deemed unpalatable.
Finding its partner unwilling to dance with them, the trustees created their own mitigation blueprint to meet the Select Board’s demands of lessening the impact of the library program on the neighborhood.
After an initial goal of 54 weekly hours was scrapped at the Select Board’s insistence, the updated agenda calls for 39 operating hours over six days including two days with evening hours, with the Benton closed on Sundays. Currently, the Benton is open five days a week for a total of 19 1/2 hours. Due to the building’s small size – the interior is a mere 900 sq. ft. – programs and events will be held off-site. The site will be staffed with three to four library employees, half taking public transportation to the Benton.
A working group will be established where residents, the Benton board, the town, and the library can facilitate ongoing communications and collaboration, said Keohane.
“This is a substantial change to what we had initially proposed and what we have today, and we think this [plan] is acceptable,” said Keohane. While acknowledging the transfer is an imposition on the residents, residents noted the library’s “big ask” of the neighborhood is not a permanent one.
“This is very temporary,” said Anne Paulsen, a former Select Board member. “We all need to pull together to make sure that our library and its programs function just as they have all along.”
“Most of us line in neighborhoods that are impacted by traffic and have been impacted by traffic during construction. We lived through it and you move on. It works,” said Paulsen who lives on School Street.
The neighbors opposing the suggested hours reiterated their concerns of safety and impact on the surrounding streets.
Lenna Garibian, an immediate abutter of the Benton, told the board that as a supporter of the current Benton setup since 2011, she hoped that the 20-or-so residents who make up those concerned with the plan would be part of the solution.
“We have always felt that we had a responsibility and a role in having the solution. We are here to help find a solution. We just believe that we should be part of a solution,” said Garibian.
Unlike the previous meeting when the neighbors filled the room, library supporters came out in force both in person and via Zoom. Amy Checkowey, a neighbor and school committee member, noted that for many families with young children is their “first and primary touch point to connect to the Belmont community” is through the Children’s Room. The trustee’s plan for “this critically important town service” exists using a community asset “willing to partner” with the Belmont Public Library.
And it’s not just the books on the shelves that is needed, said Iris Ponte, the director of the Henry Frost Children’s Program on Pleasant Street.
“[Today] I can look to Deborah [Borsuk, Coordinator of Children’s Services] and say, ‘We need to learn about cats, and ‘boom’ she’s got all the books that are on the computer and ordering them,” said Ponte who was speaking for her fellow early education teachers and day care professional.
“What we need is very highly trained, caring staff that we’ve been working with for year to help us courate these books so we can bring them back to the students.”
After the discussion of concluded, Board Member Mark Paolillo spoke for the board saying the new plan “is a fair compromise.”
Nor is the hours and days “set in stone,” according to the Select Board’s Elizabeth Dionne. “I think we all need to accept this process. They could evolve.”