WESTPORT, Conn. — Bill Harmer, Westport Library’s new executive director, went to the Chelsea, Mich., District Library about six months before it moved into its new 27,000-square-foot building with the mandate to make it a cornerstone of downtown Chelsea.
Chelsea is a heavily agricultural town of 5,100 sitting 25 miles west of Ann Arbor. When Harmer sought public support to fund expanded programming, reluctant farmers told him, “My cows don’t read.”
Yet the bond squeaked by, and Harmer set out to “put the public back in public library,” he told Sunrise Rotary on Friday.
The 21st-century library “must be integral in the life of its community. It must engage its users. It must retain its traditional purpose. More importantly, it must be an innovation leader,” he said.
One early innovation in Michigan began with a chance conversation at the Senior Center with a woman who talked about bringing a baked potato to her one-room schoolhouse every day for lunch.
This led to a reunion that brought together over 200 people, many of whom had not seen each other in 40 or 50 years, and a documentary about the area’s many one-room schools, Harmer said. Five other documentaries followed.
Working with the Historical Society, the library made a number of “Ken Burns-style, PBS-quality, videos about WWII vets, and Korean and Vietnam vets,” Harmer said.
Some farmers even made one called “My cows don’t read.”
Harmer's reward for this — and many other equally innovative programs — was being named the Best Small Library in America in 2008 by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the “Academy Award,” he called it.
Six years later, Chelsea’s Chamber of Commerce named the District Library its “Large Business of the Year.”
As Harmer starts to fill some big shoes in Westport, he talked to, again, building relationships with library patrons and community leaders to learn first-hand how he can enhance the outstanding innovation platform and spirit he inherits and move the Westport Library to the next level.
He distilled his challenge by saying, “I am looking forward to seeing what magic we can create together in Westport.”
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