GUEST COLUMN: Cape library needs renewal

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Now that spring has arrived in full bloom, the time for all good gardeners has come to tend to their work. Weeds need to be removed so that good plants can find the sunshine, food and water they need to prosper. Grass has to be mowed to be kept in check and not present an eyesore for the neighbors. Many of these activities require not just hard physical work, but also an investment in tools, equipment, seeds, plantings and adequate storage space to make the work successful. All these investments are necessary to maintain a prospering garden for now and for the future as well. Failing to make an adequate level of investment now is simply asking for more difficult choices in the future.

Similarly, the time is ripe for making an adequate investment in the future of the Cape Elizabeth community by finally moving forward with a sorely needed renovation of the Thomas Memorial Library. The proposed taxpayer responsibility for the project has been scaled down to $4 million, paid over time so as to make the annual outlay for the project occur at a pace that is more than outstripped by the annual stream of benefits enjoyed by the roughly 3,600 households that make up the Cape Elizabeth community, all of whom can access the library to meet their varying needs.

A little back-of-the-envelope calculating quickly shows that over the next 20 years, each Cape household would contribute about $55 a year toward an investment likely to return many multiples of that number in the form of benefits to the community.

Some benefits are obvious, some less so.

For example, it has been known for some time now that there are numerous deficiencies with the current library structure that must be corrected. The physical environment of the existing library is plagued by inadequate ventilation and pockets of humidity, which are simply incompatible with the proper care of the valuable library materials and equipment stored in the building. Mechanical, heating and electrical systems beg for replacement. Physical access is limited or unnecessarily difficult for many patrons of all ages. But all these problems are well known as over 100 significant deficiencies were identified in 2009. So fixing these problems is a clear benefit of the proposed investment project.

At the same time, however, the library project offers the community an opportunity to reaffirm its commitment to learning. One of the great attractions of Cape Elizabeth that redounds to the benefit of the entire community is a strong school system. Good schools mold good citizens, help maintain property values, enhance local businesses and provide better opportunities for their students. Yet learning is not acquired in just one institution. Rather it is often continuous and interactive. Public libraries extend the limited capacity of schools beyond the normal school day and provide space, programs and resources for students of all ages to stretch their imaginations. But to be optimal today, library space must be flexible. That is, it has to offer users the opportunity not only to read and research in terms of providing reading rooms and study carrels, but also to offer meeting rooms and computing support for sharing intellectual and creative pursuits in an environment where students can work together. The current proximity of the library to Cape Elizabeth schools clearly portends a continuing vital role for the library in the development of Cape Elizabeth students.

Of course, the library’s patrons consist of more than the students who make up the Cape Elizabeth school system. The library serves patrons of all ages, from curious pre-school children to equally curious senior citizens. All are in search of knowledge of one kind or another and the library offers a portal, both digital and physical, through which users can enter and librarians can help them to find their way to credible knowledge. Most importantly, this wonderful service is available to any member of the Cape Elizabeth community who wishes to avail themselves of it. No one is excluded because they don’t qualify for the services or can’t afford an entry ticket.

During its long history, the Thomas Memorial Library has changed from time to time as the Cape Elizabeth community recognized the need to do so. The time is ripe for change again if the library is to remain agile and adaptable to the needs of the community in terms of providing fundamental library services and as a portal to a full range of knowledge-enhancing programs. The library is an investment that only the community in Cape Elizabeth will have a voice in shaping, much like the gardener shaping the future of his spring investments. The need for Cape Elizabeth voters to invest in the future of their library in November is no less compelling.

Stan Wisniewski lives in Cape Elizabeth.

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