A library like no other

Story and photographs by Mary Shustack

Anyone who enters the Westport Library for the first time is in for quite a treat and maybe even a few surprises.

There is art to admire and a coffee bar for lingering, gifts to purchase and cutting-edge technology at your fingertips.

And most telling is the fact that there are no “shh-ing” librarians lurking about the oversize building on the banks of the Saugatuck River.

This is not, as they say, your mother’s library – though it certainly is still a place filled with thousands of books and magazines where great value is placed on reading, intellect and creative thinking.

But it goes far, far beyond that.

And that’s exactly how Maxine Bleiweis, the library director for the past 15 years, likes it.

“The way we operate is to open the windows and the doors and invite everybody in to be partners with us,” she says. “We’re true partners as opposed to us offering and them partaking.”

The library, in fact, is known for meeting the needs of the community, offering more than 1,400 programs each year.

Just skim a recent newsletter to get a glimpse into what’s included, from Jane Austen Day activities to a mystery-book discussion, a job-search seminar to a documentary screening, a tech-help session to a gathering of the chess club.

As Bleiweis says, people could come in and sit alone at a computer to create a business plan, learn about e-books or take part in a language conversation group where the various options include Japanese, Russian, French and Hebrew.

“These are people who have come together from all walks of life and have come together for that language,” she says. “That’s kind of a metaphor for the library.”

Still others may simply sit in the Great Hall and read the latest best seller.

“The perfect library has space for both – quiet sanctuary and the lively exchange of ideas.”

This is the kind of place that creates its annual report with elements that can only be seen with 3-D glasses.

“It’s just like the library,” she says. “You’re learning something new and having a good time doing it.”

THROUGH THE YEARS

Bleiweis came on as director in 1998, which she likes to note is the same year Google got its start.

“Nobody knew how libraries were going to be impacted by the Internet,” she says on a recent afternoon.

What has happened, she says, is “the coming together to sort it all out as a community.”

Community is a big word for Bleiweis.

“The public library has no boundaries in terms of traditional age, demographics, stages of life,” she says. “It’s very much an open platform. That’s the magic of it.”

It is, she adds, the “ultimate democracy.”

Her goal, she says, is to have the Westport Library be “Apple Genius Bar meets MIT lab meets Chautauqua.”

And it seems she is well on the way to that goal.

“Libraries used to be errands, now they’re destinations,” she says, noting the average length of stay has gone from 5 minutes to 2 hours.

EARLY DAYS

“I’ve always been in charge,” Bleiweis says with a smile.

Indeed, her career has found her in leadership roles in a handful of libraries, starting with a short stint as a branch head in New Jersey.

“I decided I wanted to have more fun with it, so I became a director,” she says. Her path would bring her to Connecticut where her last stop before Westport would be 18 years in Newington.

It was back as a young girl in northern Rhode Island, when at a Lions Clubs’ father-daughter night, Bleiweis was told her career options were teacher, nurse or librarian.

“I liked people, and I liked books, so I decided at 12 I was going to do this,” she says.

Now living in the Black Rock section of Bridgeport, Bleiweis says she savors the job that never becomes tiresome.

“The perfect day for me is meeting with lots of different people and hearing from lots of different vantage points.”

It’s ideal, since Bleiweis admits her vision is always forward.

“I am never ‘in the moment,’” she says. Instead, she’s always thinking of the next steps, of “what the library is and can be for people.”

Forget thinking outside the box, as she says she’s so out of the box, “I don’t even know that there is a box.”

And to have a job where that mode is both admired and respected is invaluable.

“It just feels good, and you feel so fortunate that you found what you were put here to do.”

And Bleiweis’ efforts have been recognized, as she was named Outstanding Librarian by the Connecticut Library Association in 2011.

NOT RESTING

But honors and awards are not what it’s all about.

Bleiweis says she’s been visited by the director of the Boston Public Library and Skyped with librarians in Anchorage, Alaska.

“It’s very flattering people want to know what we’re thinking,” she says. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s our obligation to share.”

She says in Westport that thinking goes back to the original 1908 building which had the words “open to all” on its façade.

“I think that libraries are about people,” she says.

And “all” includes a community that is rich in talent, a town filled with entrepreneurs and philanthropists, writers and filmmakers, actors and artists.

It’s about working with this community to serve its needs, from the practical to the fanciful.

“At every stage of life we need some different information or perspective,” she says.

Young people, she notes, embrace the library, particularly its MakerSpace, a showpiece introduced in 2012 where people are encouraged to “connect, invent and create.”

It’s a popular draw, especially for the younger audience that Bleiweis says is far from apathetic.

“When you find what you want to focus on, they’re there,” she says.

And for them, the library sometimes provides a true respite, free from school and family concerns.

“Nothing follows you here,” she says. “It’s a clean slate.”

And it’s a busy slate, as Bleiweis notes that the library answers about 200,000 questions a year and during Hurricane Sandy became a “literal port in the storm,” offering heat, food and WiFi.

None of it would be possible, she adds, without solid community support. She says that 80 percent of the library budget, approximately $5 million, comes from the town, with the remainder from private funding.

“If you’re a community that values education, that values intellect and improvement, you’re going to do that,” she says, noting such support that “gets you from a B-minus to an A-plus.”

Support is constant, especially for the annual late-spring gala, “Booked for the Evening,” a benefit event that has featured everyone from director Martin Scorsese to poet-musician-author Patti Smith.

“We’re like a thought incubator, and when you have the best minds, you have to have the best material,” Bleiweis says, which leads her to again discuss that innovative MakerSpace.

The centerpiece is a 3-D printer that has fueled imaginations young and old, helping people to share their stories.

She in turn shares that the library has recently been awarded, with partners Southern Connecticut State University and the Connecticut State Library-Division of Library Development, a $250,000 federal grant to further develop this offering and help establish how other libraries can become places of what she calls “participatory learning.”

Westport, she adds, has also become known in the publishing world as “a great venue for speakers in terms of great audiences.”

LOOKING AHEAD

Though the library itself is vast and impressive, Bleiweis says it still has its limitations. Demand has meant that sometimes patrons have to be turned away.

A new building project, a private-public partnership, is under way. She offers a look at an artist’s interpretation of the glistening glass structure soon to be built.

Bleiweis says it’s three-and-a half years from opening, a time that will include a solid two-year construction period.

The design, she says, “just ‘strips away the façade’ and says ‘Come in, and when you come in, the sky’s the limit.’”

Until then, Bleiweis says the library makes changes every day, such as introducing a new logo, “The Westport Library …”

“What that means is we’re incomplete without you,” Bleiweis says. “You finish the sentence.”

In your own voice.

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