Ribbon Cutting in Springfield
A few weeks ago, we visited the Springfield Central Library for the first time. We had been in the city to testify at a legislative hearing and, of course, made time to visit the library. Shortly after we left the library, we received an email invitation to a ribbon cutting for a new and more accessible entrance.
Always a sucker for a good ribbon-cutting, I drove out to Springfield early to be sure I got a good seat. (Adam had other “atonement” obligations that kept him from attending.)
If you haven’t been to the Springfield Central Library, it’s well worth a visit. As mentioned in an earlier post that includes the library, it is sited among the city’s many museums. That creates a really nice cultural hub. The library’s rear entrance opens onto a central space shared with these other institutions.
This courtyard entrance had not received much attention over the years. There had been a metal ramp for people for whom mobility is a challenge - but time and seasons had caused this ramp to rust. Other elements of the building’s exterior - including its main entrance on State Street - also needed attention. It was in honor of this work - which is often little-heralded - that this event was held.
First a few words about the event and then some thoughts on the library.
For a dreary October day, with rain threatening, the crowd was good - probably 50 people all told. There were comments from Molly Fogarty, the library’s director; Helen Caulton-Harris, Springfield’s Commissioner for Health and Human Service; Mayor Domenic Sarno; Peter Garvey and My-Ron Hatchett, the director and senior project manager, respectively, of the city’s capital assets and construction team; Kay Simpson, the President of Springfield Museums; and Stephen Cary, the Chair of the Springfield Library Commission.
Gratitude and recognition were ladled out generously, as is proper at events like this. It was clear that this was a community-wide effort. One of the best shout-outs was to Goldie Clark. Dependent on a wheeled walker to get around, Goldie long advocated for better access to the library. Commission Chair Cary, in his comments, drew attention to the meaning and impact of access.
Springfield Museum President Simpson talked about the library’s place among the other nearby cultural institutions. The design of the new ramp and stairs were also intended to tie the library stylistically into the shared space. It was a lovely event and it reflected well on all involved. It’s also telling that the library and community undertook this event.
Here is a small city coming together to celebrate its commitment to access for all during the same week we learned that the new Hunter’s Point Library in Queens was not fully accessible. That’s not to say Hunter’s Point isn’t accessible - but it could have been better. And as we’ve heard, compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act should be viewed as a floor rather than a ceiling.
When the ribbon was cut and the festivities ended, Ed Lonergan - the supervisor of adult services - took a group of us on a tour of the library. It’s a grand and beautiful Carnegie. As we marveled at the tall rotunda, Ed talked about the building of the library, which opened in 1912.
If it feels large for a Carnegie it’s because Hiller Wellman, the director of the library from 1902 to 1948, wanted the library to have “open stacks” for all to explore. (More typical of the era were “closed stacks,” where a patron would request a book and a librarian would retrieve it.) Even then, accessibility was part of the library’s DNA.
As was typical, Carnegie’s contribution was matched by the community - but the community went above and beyond what was expected, and so he upped his amount as well. The community contributions were especially touching as they often came in tiny increments - a dollar here, fifty cents there, etc. It made me think of the commitment communities had - and in some cases still have - for their shared civic institutions.
Contrast that civic support and the engagement seen at the ribbon cutting (and that we’ve seen again and again in the libraries we visited here in Massachusetts) with a recent story from Arkansas. In The New York Times, Monica Potts tells the story of Clinton Arkansas, where the library is viewed as a luxury the town can ill-afford - but even if they could, there are many who view it as unnecessary for the community.
Potts attributes this to a “go-it-alone” mentality that exists in the town. It’s such a strange way of thinking. In many ways, libraries are among our last shared common spaces. They are the only civic institution available equally to all. They provide (or should provide) a shared set of equally accessible resources to the communities they serve.
There were times - and there are still places - where the value of shared commons was recognized, celebrated, and supported. Watching the ribbon-cutting in Springfield was a reminder of what it looks like when a community comes together around shared values. It’s something we’ve seen again and again - in the opening of the Woburn Library, at the ground-breaking for the Worcester Library expansion - and will again, here in Springfield, when the new East Forrest Branch opens later this year.
Springfield’s celebration of better access to the shared space of the public library offers hope for us all.