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Darien's home away from home

Lucretia Freudenthal took issue with how loud the Darien Library was in the late 1890s.

The young people of Darien had a particular fondness for the piazza in front of the Brady House, the location of the town's first library, and the librarian simply would not have it.

The Darien Library, now in its fourth location, prides itself on the bustling atmosphere that greets the patrons as soon as they walk through the front door. The librarians at the front desk often are talking with patrons about the latest book recommendations, library programs or possibly subjects that have nothing to do with the library.

Around the corner at the library cafe, parents and their children can be found eating lunch at a table, while at another, someone has buried himself in a new magazine with a piping cup of coffee in his hand.

The air is more reserved on the second floor where people sit at the massive wooden tables in the reading room with their laptops open and plugged in, or with books and notebooks spread out in front of them.

To see how far Darien's town jewel has come, one has to look at its past, as libraries across the country celebrate National Library Week April 13 to 19.

The library's humble beginnings

As time passed, the library quickly outgrew the Brady House at the corner of Sedgwick Avenue and the Post Road and moved in the Delafield Plaza across from the Post Road where it would remain for 25 years.

Then, on one October evening in 1952 at the annual Town Meeting, library board president Richard Brett -- son of the first library's founder -- asked his fellow residents what kind of library they wanted.

A collector's library devoted to rare and specialized books?

No, Brett answered for the town.

A commercial circulating library? Brett further asked.

Again, no.

"A community library, striving to find out what its people want, supplying (the community's) need for books and making sure that people come and get them -- that is the sort of library Darien wants," Brett told the town, according to "So Many Friends," written about the library's history when it celebrated 100 years in 1994. Read Full Article 

Brett was pushing for a free-standing library, one that would be "so attractive that people should come to regard it as a second home."

That mentality stayed with the library when it was housed at 35 Leroy Ave.

There was a time, however, when the library was not a place that everyone could call home. As a way to deal with rambunctious students, the town library established a set of behavior codes in 1963 to be followed that would seem bizarre to anyone who has used the library in modern times.

"The public library is not a study hall," the code of behavior read. "Homework that does not require research should be done at home."

"The library does not furnish supplies to students," it continued, "nor does it allow use of its equipment, such as staplers, punches, etc."

It is not clear when the codes were abandoned but it's clear they are no longer enforced. Every year, the library stays open longer for students who are studying for finals and midterm exams. Students are spread out across the library, filling the tables in the second floor reading room and using any available space they can to study.

Home away from home

The strict rules and atmosphere would not remain. The feeling of a home-away-from-home has only increased at the library's new location at 1441 Post Road, which opened in January 2009.

Darien's library is the hub of the community and adapts and changes as society does. It is figuratively, and almost literally, the center of town life.

"Libraries are the heart of the community and the articulation of the community," Rebecca Miller, editor-in-chief of Library Journal, said. "Darien is a vibrant example of that."

Miller said the new location was key for the library to establish its importance to the town.

"What Darien did with the building on Main Street is that they articulated that the library was going to be central in this really deep way," Miller said.

Though society continues to change at a rapid pace, the Darien Library maintains its importance in town and is not shaken by change.

"It's more interesting to look at how the library is continuing to refine how it serves the community and the community's needs," Miller said. "As communities change, the contents change."

The rapid onset of technology has created pressures for libraries nationwide to be equipped with the latest tools. The introduction of technology also has an impact on the way the library is used.

A recent report by the Young Adult Library Services Association on the future of libraries and teens said libraries acted like grocery stores and now need to be like kitchens.

"Libraries must leverage new technologies and become kitchens for `mixing resources' in order to empower teens to build skills, develop understanding, create and share, and overcome adversity," according to the report. "The library can no longer be viewed as a quiet place to connect to physical content. Instead it needs to evolve into a place, physical and virtual, where individuals can learn how to connect and use all types of resources, from physical books to apps to experts in a local, regional, or national community."

Louise Berry, former library director who retired last year after 35 years, recalled that the two most frequent questions asked of librarians were "what are the names of the Seven Dwarfs?" and "what are the hours of the town dump?"

That was, of course, before people had access to the Internet.

"The role was certainly different then because we had all the information resources," Berry said. "The role of the library has gone much more toward creating an experience for people. That is very different than an information resource and a place to lend books."

Blanche Parker, who has worked at the library for 36 years, said the place always has been a home away from home for people.

"You do that by offering something for everyone," Parker said. "Everyone has to feel included and I think that's the big thing here."

Still about the books

Just because there are more technological offerings -- including coding classes and three 3D printers -- doesn't mean book circulation suffers as a result.

Alan Kirk Gray, director of the Darien Library, said book circulation has remained relatively flat since moving into the new location, hovering just below 500,000 checkouts per year.

The Pew Research Center found in 2013 that physical books still are a primary driver of patrons' use of the library. Even though 28 percent of adults aged 18 and older are reading e-books, only 4 percent have abandoned printed literature entirely, according to Pew.

But, Gray said, if the e-books are added to the equation, circulation on the whole is increasing.

What's more, Darien has the highest circulation per capita at 33.8.

"The library can't just be a museum of old dusty books," Gray said.

Not every thing at the library is being fully used, though, Gray said.

There has been a major reduction in CD and DVD rentals -- primarily due to streaming services, such as Hoopla or Netflix ­-- to the point that the library purged its collection of CDs and will do the same with DVDs over the next five years, according to Gray. Only a few hundred CDs remain in the children's library.

"We'll be mostly out of the DVD business in probably three or four years," Gray said. "There just won't be that much demand for them."

The library as mind-reader

The library has been touted as a forward-thinking institution that provides resources to its patrons before they even know what they want.

Berry said the library always has been proactive.

"We've been able to anticipate community needs and to look at how people are doing things in the broader society instead of waiting for them to ask us for something."

The best libraries, the Library Journal's Miller said, always have been responding to the community's needs in more ways than just a place for books.

"It's always been a myth that libraries have been book warehouses," Miller said.

What Berry discovered was that people would find a place other than the library for what they needed. Making the library their destination was key.

"There's been a big trend to give (patrons) what they want," Miller said. "At some time in history, the librarians were doing book selection to edify the reader, but they're now making selections based on what's best for the people."

The role of the library is different than it used to be because it had control of all the information resources, Berry said, instead of patrons using the computers to access information on their own.

Libraries now, Berry said, "are very different than an information resource and a place to lend books. That's why we're doing a lot more cultural programming. People see the library as the cultural center of the town. Libraries are great for that because they can integrate a program but also add all the resources."

A central attraction

The library's programs draw thousands of people throughout the year, and significantly more than the state average.

In 2013, according to the State Library, the Darien Library offered its patrons 1,536 programs. The state median for the same year was 329. Darien's offerings were lower than just seven others.

Offering programs, Gray said, is the cheapest way to expand the library's scope in the community. There are no costs to bring an author to the library if he or she is on a book tour. The greatest cost is for the license fee for the movies shown on 50 Friday nights during the year.

Miller said giving patrons programming they want is the trend.

Libraries, Miller said, "have the ability to bring the public an author they want to hear where there's nowhere else in the community that would have access to that author."

One of the biggest trends is digitization, Miller said.

In December, the library started offering Hoopla Digital, a new lending service that makes audiobooks, movies, TV shows and music available on demand.

What's more, Miller said, patrons who have purchased their own technology go to the library to learn how to use it.

"The library, as a sort of fundamental role, is there to help people use things better and to be able to use tech and be able to access the information on the other side of the connect button, whether that's information for education and entertainment, it's all layers of what the library provides," Miller said.

According to the Pew Research Center, 52 percent of those surveyed said their use of the library in the past five years has not changed to any great extent. What's more, 73 percent of library patrons in the past 12 months said they visit to browse the shelves for books or media, the report found.

The new library was built with the idea that it would be in place for 100 years, Gray said.

"This is a rock-solid New England building," Gray said. On the outside, the building is made of red brick and a slate roof, materials that are known to stand the test of time.

But on the inside, the feel completely changes to a light and modern building where one could lose an afternoon seated in a chair. A majority of the rooms are flooded with sunlight throughout the day, and Gray said it's not until a fire drill that the staff really gets a sense of how many people are tucked away in the library's nooks and crannies.

"Libraries are interested in defining space for people not things," Miller said. "When they build, they think of what people will be doing in the room before putting books in the room."

Gray said the library strives to provide a variety of options for patrons.

"There aren't just 20,000 people in this community, there are 20,000 individual people and we have to, as much as we can, deal with each one of them on the terms that they want," Gray said. "We can't, won't and will not substitute our judgment for their judgment."

mspicer@bcnnew.com; 203-330-6583; @Meg_DarienNews

More Information

History of the Darien Library
1834: Ideas start in the Middlesex Parish about building a library.
1842: Constitution and Bylaws of the library is drafted. There is no known location of a library, if one did exist at the time.
1894: First library opened at urging of George P. Brett at the Brady House with 25 subscribers.
1905: Andrew Carnegie offers town a $5,000 grant for the construction of a free-standing library if the town paid $500. His offer was defeated in 1906 and 1908
1917: The town approves an annual appropriation of $500 to help defray library operating costs.
1929: Town stipend increases from $500 a year to $1,200.
1931: Library moves to the Delafield Block on the Post Road across from the Darien Playhouse where it stayed for 25 years.
1935: Library moves into second storefront at the Delafield Block. Darien Review called it a "disgraceful situation."
1951: The first donation from the Anonymous Angel is received. $3,000 is to be dedicated to the building fund. An additional $3,000 is to be used to hire a children's librarian and the rebuild the volumes in the children's library.
1952: Caroline Bird is hired as the first part-time children's librarian.
1953: Library acquired Arthur Gilkison as the architect for the new library. Gilkison designed Royle and Hindley elementary schools.
1955: The Darien Community Association approves a $1,500 grant for the installation of a card catalog at the library.
1955: The library purchased 1.5 acres of land from Mrs. M.E. Walker at 35 Leroy Ave. for $30,000. The site was once considered for the Masonic temple. The library president reached out to the Anonymous Angels for another $5,000.
November 1956: Ground breaks on the library site.
Sept. 29, 1958: Doors open at the 35 Leroy Ave. library.
1964: Cornelia Groetzinger dies, leaving her entire estate to the library. The estate was valued at $90,000.
1971: A new $550,000 wing is proposed to expand the library.
Feb. 10, 1973: Ground breaks on addition.
October 1974: New wing opens.
1970s: Free film showings begin. They were initially on Thursdays, but moved to Fridays.
March 1979: Louise Berry, 33, was hired as the library director. She would serve for 35 years until 2014. Berry installed a front counter of the library to monitor traffic in and out of the building.
1984: Computer task force starts to campaign for computers in the library.
Nov. 1985: Library patrons are given a computerized library card.
1985: An art committee is formed to commission an original sculpture.
Feb. 1986: Digital library system goes online.
May 31, 1987: The bronze sculpture of a blue heron is unveiled. The heron, designed by Elliot Offner, now stands at the base of the reflecting pool at the new library.
1988: First annual staff award for outstanding achievement given to Mary Freedman and Marty Wilson.
1992: The ability to reserve books, use the interlibrary system and check out videos is restricted to just Darien residents due to the increase of patrons using the library from out of town.
May 2007: Ground breaks for the new library on the Post Road.
Jan. 10, 2009: Doors open at the new library

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