Silas Bronson Library (Waterbury, CT): A Work in Progress
The report that follows first appeared in Connecticut Libraries magazine in June of 2004. It describes a multilingual technology program that has delivered essential information and technology skills to the traditionally underserved citizens of Waterbury, CT. As the article suggests, the Silas Bronson Library faces a major transition in September, when the staff of nine funded under a large grant program will be let go. The remaining library staff will then be tasked with maintaining public computers and delivering a reduced schedule of the patron-training courses that were offered under the grant. The library faces many challenges in this transition period: lack of political support at the state level, the loss of their current director, an impoverished community, and a staff that will lose much of its technical resources when the grant ends.
So this is one Library of the Month story that doesn’t have a happy ending--yet. It’s a tale of a library that started in a very difficult situation, then secured a large grant, built an enormously successful program, and now faces its biggest challenge: to sustain the substantial benefit it has brought to its community into the post-grant era.
The Bronson Library has persevered through difficult circumstances in the past, and we wish its staff all the best in negotiating this latest challenge. We hope that the collective resources and support of the WebJunction community can be part of the solution for the Bronson Library and for other libraries like it that face the challenge of reduced resources.
Urban libraries like Waterbury’s Silas Bronson Library typically face a gamut of problems, from under-funding to populations with high rates of illiteracy. In 2001, the library also served a city struggling with chronically high unemployment and suffering the collective angst associated with a series of municipal administrations plagued by scandal and charged with wrong doing of one sort or another.
In this painful period for the city, its 131-year-old public library was celebrating some astonishingly good news. Due largely to the efforts of then-Congressman James Maloney, Silas Bronson had won a $2.125 million federal award from the Institute of Museum and Library Service to bring its nascent technological capabilities up to current standards. With the award, $500,000 from the Bronson Library endowment, and about $100,000 from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in hand, the library initiated construction of an Information Technology Center (ITC) in Bronson’s east wing.
The Silas Bronson Library, named for a local merchant and philanthropist whose legacy called for the establishment of a city library, was not used to major strokes of good fortune. With most of its operating funds coming from the municipal budget, its financial condition reflected the relative poverty of the city itself. Aside from a short period in the early 1960s, support consistently lagged behind that of the average Connecticut public library.
The year 2001 was about as bad a year as the library ever had. A succession of fiscally inept administrations had forced Waterbury into “bankruptcy,” with its finances overseen by a state oversight board. Compounding a drastic reduction in the library budget was a quarter-million-dollar error made by the oversight board. The library’s funding fell precipitously—24% from the previous year—and Silas Bronson became the state’s most poorly supported municipal library. Cuts in staff and service hours were so severe that the library had to do its own fundraising in order to operate.
Nevertheless, work on building the Information Technology Center that Bronson Library Director Leo N. Flanagan had envisioned in his application to the IMLS began with the hiring of Jack Oxton as project manager. There’s no such thing as easy money, and there’s no such thing as an easy major construction job inside a public facility. Flanagan was full of doubts. His staff had been cut in half. He was tempted to return the money and forget the project. The Library Board of Agents, however, wanted to move ahead, and so we did.
The ITC team, library staff and patrons plunged into the inevitable chaos of construction with Flanagan determined to maintain a long tradition of keeping the building open to the public no matter what. The patience of patrons was challenged by the disorganization, but the promise of what was to come helped to ease their aggravation.
Thousands of the library’s 260,000 volumes had to be moved—not just the business and art books housed in the area now claimed by the ITC, but by domino effect, almost every book in the library. Staging areas were set up where some books could sit while others were moved closer to what might be their final position. Parts of the collection had to be moved several times, turning the job of keeping the inventory in some sort of order into a Chinese puzzle.
In a dramatic illustration of the speed of technological change, construction that included raising the floor in the ITC so that wiring and cables could be installed and hidden away would not be necessary in today’s wireless environment. Indeed, a truly wireless system would have spared the ITC team many of the electrical headaches that the aging building posed.
In the fall of 2002, during a period of upheaval for the library, ITC Project Manager Oxton left and was succeeded by Bill Bender, an existing ITC employee, a software expert, and the chief developer and instructor of the free computer courses the ITC was beginning to offer to the public. Bender was not interested in project manager as a permanent assignment, however, and in the spring of 2003, M. Tolga Demirci was hired for the job. An electrical engineer with experience in the construction industry, Demirci brought the expertise that solved the electrical problems with the installation of the new system.
The library now has a state-of-the-art technology center with more than 100 computers for public use and two classrooms with 13 terminals each for offering free computer instruction to residents. In fact, the ITC has met its mission in a way that has won recognition statewide as a model for other public libraries. In March 2004, it won an award for excellence for bringing computer instruction to all segments of the community.
The ITC employs nine people: three technicians, a marketing associate, an administrator, three instructors, and a project manager. Outreach into the community has added to class attendees those who otherwise might not have come into the library. City workers, including office staff and police officers, have trained in ITC computer classes. Special hardware and software makes computer technology accessible to many disabled patrons, and special classes are offered to those who are blind and or have low vision.
Today, the ITC offers courses almost daily, in English and Spanish, in the computer programs used most widely by individuals and businesses. About 275 residents a month—or 3,276 a year—take advantage of the ITC’s free courses. About 95 people a day—or 27,170 a year—come into the library to use a computer.
With the ITC, the Bronson Library has increased the value of its services to the citizens of Waterbury tremendously. “This is…a resource that will affect the future of Waterbury,” said Mary Engels of the State Library and the CLA Public Library Awards Committee when Waterbury’s award was announced. The three-year IMLS grant ends on September 30, and the city is scheduled to take over maintenance of the computer resources while library staff take over the teaching and management functions of the ITC.
Louise Axelson is Marketing Associate at Silas Bronson Library’s Information Technology Center, in Waterbury, CT.