Category Archives: Library

Library’s Latest Shout-Out: Forbes.com

Forbes may be “the capitalist tool.” But it’s got a soft spot for a certain everyone’s-equal space: the Westport Library.

Forbes-logoForbes.com carries a story — “Remarkable Lessons in Innovation From a Public Library” — by Westporter Bruce Kasanoff.

He begins: “There are two ways to run a public library in a small town: the traditional way, or the Maxine Bleiweis way.”

After praising the director for being “a vibrant tool for bringing out the best in others,” he cites her for not knowing the definition of “can’t.” Her library, he says, can be “noisy, boisterous, provocative, outrageous (and) entertaining.”

Kasanoff adds that Bleiweis’ best talent may be bringing out talents in other people. He cites these traits that we all should emulate:

Boldness: If it will benefit the library, Maxine will ask anyone to do anything. She enlists CTOs of Fortune 50 companies, top journalists, famous authors, and a huge corps of enthusiastic volunteers. Just as importantly, she always has a bold idea and a few “asks” ready; if she spots you in the library, the odds are 100 to 1 that she’ll tell you about her latest projects and how you can help.

Westport Library director Maxine Bleiweis has often enlisted the help of David Pogue. The Westport-based tech writer-video star-guru happily obliges.

Westport Library director Maxine Bleiweis has often enlisted the help of David Pogue. The Westport-based tech guru-writer-video star happily obliges.

Warmth: The Westport Library is partially funded by the town, and also depends on donations from its supporters. There’s never enough money, especially now that the library is embarking on a capital campaign to reshape the building to be much more of a gathering, social and performance space. Leaders in such an environment don’t get to bark orders. Maxine leads with warmth, charm and enthusiasm. She understands that her role is to be uplifting and aspirational.

Imagination: What if we turned the middle of the library into a Makerspace? Could we teach kids to program computers by buying two Aldebaran robots for them to program? Maxine discovered the answers to both these questions was “yes.”

The Westport Library's Makerspace has a prominent position in the midst of the Great Hall.

The Westport Library’s Makerspace has a prominent position in the Great Hall.

Kasanoff concludes:

Maxine taught an entire town not to be limited by outdated conceptions of what you or your organization is supposed to be doing. She showed an entire generation that you are limited only by your own imagination, creativity and willingness to whatever it takes to bring your dream to life.

Most importantly, she showed us what happens when people with diverse talents, abilities and interests work together to uplift a community. The answer, of course, is that magic happens.

Can You Believe: Another Westport Library National Award!

The Westport Library serves everyone. This week everyone, it seems, wants to serve it.

Hot on the heels of this morning’s announcement that director Maxine Bleiweis will receive one her profession’s highest awards comes more news: Westport is a finalist for one of the library world’s greatest honors.

The Institute of Museum and Library Services has included Westport on its list of 15 libraries vying for its National Medal. Each was chosen for its significant and exceptional contributions to its community, and its extraordinary and innovative approach to public service.

Westport joins the likes of the Brooklyn, Los Angeles and Phoenix public libraries. It was singled out for “exemplary leadership in promoting lifelong learning while engaging and inspiring the public.”

The Westport Library offers every conceivable service, from every imaginable perspective. (Photo/Dave Elgart)

The Westport Library provides every conceivable service, for every imaginable perspective. (Photo/Dave Elgart)

The Westport Library offers over 1600 programs a year. Its annual Maker Faire attracts 4,000 inventors, hobbyists, scientists, teachers and individuals. The library earned 5-star status from the Library Journal — an honor granted to less than 1% of American public libraries.

Winners will be named this spring. They’ll be honored in Washington, DC. They’ll also receive a visit from StoryCorps, the nonprofit that records and shares oral histories.

In the meantime, IMLS encourages Westport Library users to share their stories on Facebook (click here).

Stories, after all, are what the Westport Library is all about. Plus magazines, newspapers, videos, computers, art, lectures, recitals, 3D printers, robots, crossword puzzles…

Maxine Bleiweis: A Library Winner, In Every Way

When Maxine Bleiweis was young, she says, “I was not a very successful library user.” She learned through hands-on experiences, not books. And she liked to talk.

If she were a kid today, she’d thrive at the Westport Library — an institution run by the now-grown Maxine Bleiweis. It’s a place filled with noise — of chatter, programs, and the hands-on learning, exploration and invention being done in the innovative MakerSpace, smack dab in the center of the place.

When Maxine was younger too — just starting out as a library director — she was influenced by Charlie Robinson. As head of the Baltimore County system, he believed that libraries did not have to follow a “business as usual” model. Rather than assuming libraries were arbiters of community taste — deciding unilaterally which books to purchase; decreeing that users must be silent everywhere — he said, essentially, “give ‘em what they want.” Even if “they” had no idea what it was.

PLAIn June, Bleiweis receives the Charlie Robinson Award. The Public Library Association honor goes to one innovative leader, risk taker or change agent each year.

“Having my name under his on that award is pretty amazing,” Bleiweis says.

It’s also fitting. For the past 17 years, she’s been a pretty amazing director of the Westport Library.

As she prepares to leave her post — she’s “retooling” (not “retiring”) as of July 1 — she spent time recently looking back on a career she’s embraced with a gusto that may once have seen out of place, back when librarians’ main job was to tell patrons “ssshhh…”

Her innovations — the basis of that Charlie Robinson Award — stem from her philosophy that a library should know what people need from it, even before those people know it themselves.

Everyone, she says, “has a need and a right to succeed at, and be validated by, this miraculous institution: the public library.”

Maxine Bleiweis

Maxine Bleiweis

To do that, she’s “taken herself out of” the building. That’s allowed her to reimagine what it could look like, unencumbered by preconceptions and conventions. It’s enabled her to advocate for, and introduce, not only the MakerSpace but advanced technology, TED Talks, wide-ranging programs and events that draw the community together. A true joy, she says, is “watching 8-year-olds and 80-year-olds exchange ideas and information.”

A library, according to Bleiweis, is no longer just a place to get reading material. Anyone can do that anywhere. It’s a place to “debate, discuss, discover.”

Among those most memorable debates: the night Westporter Phil Donahue showed a documentary he produced on the Iraq war. A fight nearly erupted, in the SRO crowd. Bleiweis — wedged against a wall — grew worried. Finally — “in his best talk show host voice” — Donahue defused tensions by saying, “I think this is the part of the program where we all hold songs and sing ‘Kumbaya.'”

An important discussion came soon after a disastrous, alcohol-fueled Staples Homecoming. The library provided a place — “outside of school,” Bleiweis notes — to share community concerns.

Teenagers feel welcome at the Westport Public Library.

Teenagers feel welcome at the Westport Library.

As for discovery, Bleiweis recalls a panel of pioneering feminists. “They were wonderful, but at the end they looked at the audience and said, ‘We’ve done our job. What about you?'”

On the spot, a group formed. Out of that meeting came a grant proposal for a program in which college women would mentor high school girls. In turn, they would mentor middle school girls.

What ideas did not work? Bleiweis can’t think of any — because that’s not the way she measures success.

“We’re always in beta test mode, always in tryouts,” she explains. “The library doesn’t really lead. It just provides fertile ground for people to grow things. Inviting in people is more important than making sure all our i’s are dotted and our t’s are crossed.”

One of the Westport library's new robots. (Photo/Danny Ghitis for the Wall Street Journal)

One of the Westport Library’s new robots. (Photo/Danny Ghitis for the Wall Street Journal)

But, the director notes, “the more this community realizes what a library can be, the more we’re struggling with a building that was not built to facilitate that.” She is proud of the innovative role the Westport Library has played, but knows it will be increasingly difficult to continue, given the constraints of the present building.

In every institution’s life, Bleiweis says, there are junctures where decisions will be made by the person who will be there to see them through. The Westport Library, she believes, is at one of those points.

She’s put forth her vision of what the facility should look like, and how it should function. But many more decisions must be made. And — based on the demographics of her staff — many hiring decisions lie ahead.

Those are part of the reasons behind her decision to step down now. Her personal life plays a role too. Bleiweis’ mother is 98; at the same time, Bleiweis is a new grandmother. “I need a bit of flexibility in my life,” she says.

As handsome as the Westport Library is, it was not built for 21st-century technology -- or the needs of 21st-century users.

As handsome as the Westport Library is, it was not built for 21st-century technology — or the needs of 21st-century users.

Asked what she would say to her successor, Bleiweis offers: “You’re absolutely blessed with the most vibrant, thinking community anywhere. Listen hard; the answers are within the conversations you’ll hear.”

In the 4 months before she leaves, there is still plenty of work to do — and energy to harness.

Plus, of course, there’s that Charlie Robinson Award to pick up. It’s presented at the American Library Association’s annual conference, in San Francisco. That’s the last week in June — which happens to be Maxine Bleiweis’ final week as director of the Westport Library.

Talk about a storybook ending!

Tess’ Bench

The other day, I posted a few of Lynn U. Miller’s photos of the library Riverwalk, at dusk. 

I was struck by their beauty. Many “06880” readers were too. But for Suzanne Tanner, one picture was especially poignant. She wrote:

I want to thank Lynn for capturing such a profound and welcoming photo of my daughter’s memorial bench on the grounds of the Westport Public Library.

The bench was inspired by and appropriated with a memorial fund started in my daughter’s name to establish points of figural beauty in and around one of Tess’s favorite places in town — our riverfront library.

Library bench sunset - Lynn U Miller

I want to remind others how important it is to pause and reflect on all of the love that is given to us in life, be it the warmth of a child’s hand in ours or the generosity of a singular smile resonating in the crevices of time’s travel. It always pleases me to see another appreciate the beauty in the structure of the bench and the delightful setting for all to share.

A portion of Tess’s fund has been allocated to the Levitt Pavilion to continue the effort. I am currently searching for outdoor sculptures, favoring any with the essence of poetry, discovery, mythology and hummingbirds to create a Riverwalk Sculpture Garden in Tess’s honor.

If anyone has any ideas or suggestions, please contact either myself (suzannetanner@aol.com) or the Levitt (levitt@westportct.gov). I welcome the energy and opportunity to share in the journey of remembering a most delightful spirit with an inspiring path along the riverwalk.

 

Finding Beauty, Right Here At Home

Lynn U. Miller has lived in Westport most of her life. But she always finds new ways of seeing very familiar scenes.

Late Wednesday afternoon, she shot some photos near one of her favorite spots: the library. Lynn found even more serenity there than usual.

But, she says, not until she edited the images did she realize how fortunate we are to be able to spend even a few minutes of our day enjoying such peace, quiet and utter beauty.

She says: “Among all the crazy horror of Isis, the bickering politicians and horrendous train accidents, to name only a few, we get to have this…”

Amen, Lynn. And thank you.

Riverwalk winter 2015 - Lynn U Miller

Library bench sunset - Lynn U Miller

Fire and ice - Lynn U Miller

Library handrail - Lynn U Miller

(Photos/Lynn U. Miller)

 

 

It Pays To Advertise…

A heap o’ parking lot snow was dumped on Jesup Green yesterday.

Then someone actually climbed it, to plant an advertising sign at the summit. (It’s for an open house at the Connecticut Friends School in Wilton, if you can’t read from afar.)

Library sign

(Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

The good news: A few hours from now, it will be buried.

The bad news: A few hours from now, it will be buried.

 

Breaking News — Maxine Bleiweis To Retire

Maxine Bleiweis — the innovative, energetic and much-admired director who over the past 17 years propelled the Westport Library into the forefront of institutions nationwide — has announced her retirement. She moves into a new career as a consultant on July 1.

The decision was difficult. But, she says, “with the Westport Library solidly set on its future path, I hope I will have the opportunity to help other libraries achieve similar goals.”

Board president Michael Guthman said that because of Bleiweis’ “imagination, visionary thinking and ability to motivate others, our library is now recognized as one of the most innovative libraries in the world.”

Maxine Bleiweis

Maxine Bleiweis

She came to Westport in 1998, after serving as library director in upstate Newington for 18 years. She made her mark here in many areas, from personal interactions and customer service to programming, community involvement and technology.

She is passionate about new ways of learning, intergenerational collaboration, support for the business community and independent entrepreneurs.

Bleiweis also championed the adoption and implementation of new technologies. Under her leadership the Westport library instituted automated circulation systems, provided internet access and wireless computing, introduced 3D printing, taught programming with robotics and maintained a MakerSpace.

Her library was also one of the 1st in the nation to maintain a MakerSpace.

In 2013, the Westport Library earned a 5-star rating from The Library Journal. That year Bleiweis was asked by the State Department to host a conference of librarians visiting from Moscow. She was later invited to Russia with staff members from The Smithsonian Institute.

Bleiweis has worked in libraries for over 40 years. She says:

It has been an honor to serve the town of Westport, a place where individuals are truly committed to learning, culture, and coming together for the betterment of the community.

It is this commitment, the generosity of donors and volunteers, and our gifted  staff that have made the success we achieved possible. I am confident that this team and this community will continue to expand and grow the Westport Library into the extraordinary place it will be in the future.

For nearly 2 decades Maxine Bleiweis has been the library director that most towns only dream of. She has made our library into a true community jewel, for Westporters (and others) of all ages. We will miss her greatly.

Fortunately, in her new consultant role, we can call on her whenever we need to. As the Westport Library heads into its next era — with physical expansion in the works — this gifted librarian will continue to help us stay informed, connected, and proud.

Maxine Bleiweis' impact extends to hiring innovative people. She and Bill Derry share a love of using technology in a variety of community-minded ways.

Maxine Bleiweis’ impact extends to hiring innovative, creative people. She and Bill Derry share a love of using technology in a variety of community-minded ways.

Downtown Planning Report: 44 Ideas Worth Examining

After several years, countless meetings and surveys, and endless anticipation, the 1st draft of Westport’s Downtown Master Plan has been made public.

A full house of interested observers was on hand yesterday when the Downtown Steering Committee got a look at the 159-page document.

Now the fun begins.

Larry Untermeyer's spectacular aerial photo in the opening pages of the planning report highlights the inherent beauty -- and potential -- of downtown.

Larry Untermeyer’s spectacular aerial photo in the opening pages of the planning report highlights the inherent charm — and problems — of downtown.

The consultant — Norwalk-based RBA Group — has provided 44 recommendations and strategies. They range from big-picture creative ideas to practical smaller improvements.

Here — drum roll, please — they are:

Near-term

  • Improve and complete the sidewalk network
  • Implement Main Street streetscape improvements
  • Create a new road: Library Lane
  • Redesign Church Lane into a “shared street”
  • Support improvements to Toquet Hall
  • Support the redevelopment of the west side riverfront
  • Build a pedestrian bridge crossing the Saugatuck
  • Create a Westport Arts & Culture Heritage “Trail”
  • Improve pedestrian safety at Post Road crossings
  • Improve pedestrian and vehicular safety at Post Road intersections through traffic signal modifications
  • Redesign Myrtle Road intersections
  • Improve traffic movements at the Route 1/33 intersection
Traffic often backs up on Wilton Road, near the Post Road intersection. Development of the west side of the river is an important element of the Downtown Master Plan.

Traffic often backs up on Wilton Road, near the Post Road intersection. Development of the west side of the river is an important element of the Downtown Master Plan.

  • Improve the wayfinding system for motorists
  • Develop directional and informational signs for pedestrians
  • Support initiatives to access and connect downtown through transit
  • Provide amenities for transit passengers
  • Provide bicycle parking in downtown
  • Combine and co-manage public and private parking lots (Baldwin lot with Avery Place)
  • Change parking from 1-hour to 2-hour maximum in downtown
  • Implement seasonal valet parking
  • Relocate long-term parking

Short-term

  • Reinvent Jesup Green
  • Coordinate and implement uniform streetscape improvements throughout downtown
  • Support the Westport Cinema Initiative
  • Monitor the relocation of the Westport Arts Center
  • Create new pedestrian passageways
  • Consider the future of Elm Street
Modifications to Elm Street are shown in this rendering. The old Westport Pizzeria is on the right; Vineyard Vines is hidden behind trees at center.

Modifications to Elm Street are shown in this rendering. The old Westport Pizzeria is on the right; Vineyard Vines is hidden behind trees at center.

  • Redesign Taylor Street into a “shared street”
  • Support the library transformation project
  • Improve the appearance and safety of the Imperial Avenue lot
  • Consider a fee-based system to manage parking in certain locations
  • Redesign Jesup Road
An illustration of the possible reinvention of Jesup Green shows a pier, and relocation of parking.

An illustration of the possible reinvention of Jesup Green shows a pier, and relocation of parking. The library is at right.

  • Build a bridge to connect to the Imperial Avenue parking lot
  • Redesign the Main Street/Elm Street intersection
  • Consider implementing a real-time parking information system
  • Create a town-wide bicycle plan

Long-term

  • Transform Parker Harding Plaza
A section of the reimagined Parker Harding Plaza shows much more green along the riverfront.

Reimagined Parker Harding Plaza shows more green along the riverfront.

  • Place a cafe on the green
  • Provide public restrooms
  • Construct a downtown landing
  • Create a barge restaurant
  • Extent the westside riverwalk
  • Combine and co-manage public and private parking lots (Gillespie Center with old Town Hall)
  • Consider providing additional parking supply

Each idea is explored in greater depth. Of course, a section of the report is devoted to financing.

It’s fascinating — and important — reading. If you’ve got a few hours, the report can be downloaded here.

The next stage begins now. The committee will present the report to the Planning and Zoning Commission on Thursday, January 15.

The public gets a crack on Wednesday, January 28, with an open house in the Town Hall auditorium (4:30-9 p.m.), and 2 separate report presentations (5:30 and 7:30 p.m.).

Nothing is chiseled in stone, as 1st Selectman Jim Marpe points out. However, it looks like 2015 will be a year in which downtown might really start to rock.

(For more information, click on www.downtownwestportct.com)

Downtown Westport offers many opportunities for growth and rebirth. (All photos and renderings courtesy of the Downtown Master Plan report)

Downtown Westport offers many opportunities for growth and rebirth. (All photos and renderings courtesy of the Downtown Master Plan report)

 

First Night 2015; Last Post 2014

First Night got underway late this afternoon. The sun was setting, the air was cold — but the anticipation of Westport’s 21st annual New Year’s Eve community celebration made for a warm feeling all around downtown.

Festivities continue through 10 p.m., when fireworks soar over the river. Come on down!

(Click on this schedule for all events.)

Horse-drawn carriages clomped throughout downtown. For more modern transportation, buses run between Jesup Green and Saugatuck Elementary School through 9 p.m.

Horse-drawn carriages clomp downtown. For modern transportation, buses run between Jesup Green and Saugatuck Elementary School through 9 p.m.

The Westport Astronomical Society hauled out some serious telescopes. The view is better now that the sun has set.

The Westport Astronomical Society hauled out some serious telescopes. The view is better now that the sun has set.

First Night Westport/Weston runs smoothly, thanks to an army of volunteers.

First Night Westport/Weston runs smoothly, thanks to an army of volunteers.

The Survivors Swing Band kicked things off at the library. (Photo/Fred Cantor)

The Survivors Swing Band kicked things off at the library. (Photo/Fred Cantor)

Jayne Mauborgne’s Love Letter To Westport

It’s Westport’s 2nd favorite sport, after tearing down perfectly good homes: Bashing our home town. (See? I can’t resist, even in a perfectly good introduction to this story.)

But, of course, there is much — very much — to love about this place. Alert “06880” reader (and longtime Westporter) Jayne Mauborgne sent this along. She wrote it 10 years ago. A real estate agency reprinted it for potential buyers. It’s as relevant today as it was, way back at the dawn of the 21st century. Jayne said:

When I was in my late teens I traveled with my  father, who was in sales. He called on a clothing store, on Main Street.

Part of the pleasure of traveling with him was lunch. This day was no different.  We ate at a Chinese restaurant on Main Street, then took a walk in the back by the water. I remarked to my dad, “when I grow up I hope I can live in a house in Westport.” It was love at first sight.

When Jayne Mauborgne first visited Westport, the Saugatuck River lapped up against the back of Main Street stores.

When Jayne Mauborgne first visited Westport, the Saugatuck River lapped up against the back of Main Street stores.

Many years later the dream became a reality. My husband and I moved with our 2 little daughters to a lovely house in the town of my dreams.

That was 54 years ago, but the thrill of Westport never wears thin. My girls attended public schools here, getting attention one can only dream about.  Teachers were our neighbors and friends, and the caring was overwhelming.

I didn’t work when my children were young. I enjoyed the PTA, made lasting friendships, played tennis, my husband golfed at Longshore, we enjoyed the beach and 4th of July, Staples Players, wonderful restaurants, Memorial Day parades, a first-class library (even before the new building) – too many things to mention.

Nothing beats a Memorial Day parade in Westport.

Nothing beats a Memorial Day parade in Westport.

Life has changed. The girls are professional women. For the last 35 years I have owned my own business. I worked hard. But at the end of each day, just walking at the beach, watching a sunset at Compo or walking at Winslow, my thoughts stray to the wonder of this town. To the familiar faces in the supermarket. The friends and acquaintances I run into in a restaurant or just walking on Main Street. How lucky I am.

The greatest pleasure for me is Winslow Park. What forward-thinking people we have had at the helm of this town, to put 22 of the most valuable acres aside for walking, enjoying or doing nothing at all (which is a lost art in this town). How beautiful to watch the sun go down, see the dogs playing, see their owners having a few relaxed moments from their busy days, moms with carriages, joggers, kids on sleds in winter.

To have such a beach 1 mile from my house is unbelievable. An Olympic pool at Longshore, sailing, tennis courts galore, golf: what doesn’t this town have?

Longshore's charms are endless -- and timeless.

Everyone loves Longshore.

I have had occasion to call the police a few times over the years. I don’t think I have even hung up the phone when they appeared at the door. The same holds true for EMS. The dedication of the people who serve this town voluntarily. Hats off to all of you who give tirelessly of your time and energy — especially as everyone here has a point of view and wants to be heard, even if it is midnight.  And show me another town where you get to meet, eat and chat with the top executives.

Yes, I knew this was the right place for me. So I just want to say “thank you Westport.” You have given me a really nice life,  and if I am lucky I  hope for many more years of pleasure.