“The years past have seen the establishment and subsequent growth of our library until it has long since outgrown its accommodations and has thus been seriously handicapped in its attempted work.” —Henry W. Saxe, ‘Relation of the Library to the Community,’ in the Jan. 30, 1913 New Canaan Advertiser
In 1913, a time capsule was placed under the cornerstone of the New Canaan Library, to be opened “one hundred years from now” when, as leadership then anticipated, our town’s needs would outgrow the footprint of the building they’d just begun.
New Canaan has grown from almost 4,000 souls to over 20,000 in 109 years. Moreover, the information-seeking landscape has been wildly, dramatically altered. Right now, you’re reading your morning paper on a tiny, handheld computer that also serves as a portal to all the world’s information. You’re also not wearing pantaloons and reading by kerosene lamp; if you are, I salute your freaky-deaky choice. But while our access to information has leapt forward exponentially, our need for in-person learning and a sense of human connection remains unchanged.
Libraries have expanded their aims to suit that reality. Institutions that began as reading rooms for men in the 19th century are no longer just silent spaces for reading the Wall Street Journal and getting shushed. They’ve become vibrant community centers for developing skills, connecting with literature, meeting your tutor, and, if you’re like me, just getting some work done in a place where you can’t get away with wearing sweatpants for the tenth day in a row.
The New Canaan Library’s current mission is to “inspire lifelong learning through innovation and discovery.” They’ve managed admirably in the legacy space, but to truly answer such a mandate, it’s always been clear to me that an upgrade was needed. This February, we’ll all experience it together for the first time.
Recently, my husband and I were lucky enough to stroll through the site with New Canaan Library Executive Director Lisa Oldham and Turner Construction Project Manager Gillian Zinser. Though at the time of our visit, the building was still a couple of months away from completion, this woman-led project (woohoo!) is already, quite clearly, a magnificent asset for our town. In a couple of months, we’ll all be able to get to know the space. Until then, I’m sharing a few of my favorite things that we saw.
Consummate Design Thoughtfulness
For anyone who grumbled about the project’s price tag (over 75% of which was contributed by private donors, thankyouverymuch), it will be impossible to deny that we’re getting a bespoke building for the money. Everything about the building has been thoroughly considered to reflect New Canaan’s culture, people, surroundings, and history. The architectural concept for the building echoes two of our best-known Midcentury architectural treasures, the 1955 Eliot Noyes House sitting atop Philip Johnson’s 1949 Glass House. The library’s living room fireplace (yes, you read that right, and is it too early to call dibs on a cozy fireside chair?) is a two-story replica of the fireplace in the Noyes House. The hand-laid stone exterior was locally quarried and color-matched to the legacy building, which will move 115 feet to the west to create space for a much-needed town green. After driving past the construction site all year, the building already has a landmark’s familiarity–through its modernity and materials, it feels like it’s been there forever.
You don’t need to spend much time in our town to understand that we’ve needed a real-deal auditorium for some time. Satisfying the town’s intellectual and artistic curiosity has, for too long, been outsourced to country club banquet rooms, too-small private living rooms, and, ugh, Darien. The Jim and Dede Bartlett Auditorium will finally scratch that community itch, providing seating for 325 guests in front of a grand stage with views east to Main Street.
In terms of accessibility, any New Canaan resident can reach everything from the walled children’s garden at the southwest corner to the gorgeous roof deck that looks south and east, regardless of their mobility needs. “Access is a foundational principle for librarians,” Lisa Oldham said of the building she’s spent most of the past decade getting built for our town. “A library can’t fulfill its promise to the community if not everyone can use it.”
During the new Library’s heated, existential mélee of 2021*, when some of us watched New Canaan Planning & Zoning Commission Zoom meetings like they were new episodes of The White Lotus (and sometimes, they kind of were), folks recalled fond childhood memories from the library of yore. Finally, a vivid stage is being set for the memories of new generations, with a succession of special spaces purpose-built for the kids of New Canaan, from preliterate learners to teens. In the children’s library, picture books will be shelved with the cover facing outwards so that children can approach a shelf and choose a book based on what cover appeals most to them. Not only does this sound adorable, but it also helps to instill a love for books and reading. Cozy nooks for caretakers and kids will abound in that space, responding to real community demand (see the Google reviews) for seating where grownups and kids can explore the manifold neuroses of Llama Llama together.
There will also be a “Tween Cave,” a thoughtfully carved out space for a constituency who deserve their own turf, who aren’t quite teenagers but aren’t little anymore. The tween cave will have lounge spaces, books, and enough visibility for parents to keep an eye out, but enough privacy for tweens to have agency. My fondest childhood library memories are from that era, devouring Jolly Ranchers and Stephen King novels at equally unhealthy rates on a gross vinyl chair at the Orinda Library.
There will be a teen section all its own upstairs, with desks and carrels designed for working with tutors and a great view down South Avenue. Anyone who’s spent time in the current library knows how buzzy and active it gets after the high school lets out–these kids deserve dedicated space! And nearby, an area I’m particularly excited about: coworking space for small business owners and the WFH crew. There will be eight bookable conference rooms for calls and meetings, a rentable boardroom, and the opportunity for in-person collaboration that the pandemic took away from many of us.
* In the interest of transparency, I definitely had a horse in this race. I was part of a small team that led the (highly unofficial) Friends of the New New Canaan Library effort, bringing a petition to P&Z and the Town Council that demonstrated that supporters of the new Library in our town outnumber the folks who preferred to see the application denied.
Technology for Humanity’s Sake
Again, in your hand, you have a tiny portal to all the world’s information at any point in any day. But does it do that? Or does it serve up the same nine ads for skincare and outerwear that mine does? Curiosity needs meaningful sustenance. And being able to Google John Stamos’s middle name (it’s Phillip, and you’re welcome) isn’t making anyone smarter in a profound or meaningful way. So, while technology might be able to throw informational Cheez-its to our questioning souls, we need real food to grow as people. The structured, cultural spark that a library provides is meant to provide that sustenance to everyone, from toddlers to seniors, and technology only serves to enhance it.
For one, there’s a teaching kitchen. I’m going to type that again, just for the sheer joy of it. Teaching! Kitchen! There, there will be cameras to capture the work a chef’s hands (let’s say it’s Ina Garten, and she’s also going to tell us that it’s all going to be okay) are doing and record it for social media and play it on a big screen so that everyone can see. Is this your grandmother’s interpretation of what a library can be? No! But she’d love it, too.
Another place where we can all pick up a new skill, the Maker Lab, will now have its own tech-enabled space. The Library’s technology educator will lead kids and adults in learning about robotics, 3D printing, weaving, knitting, and silk screening.
Perhaps my favorite functional aspect of the coming library is that book checkout will be RFID-enabled, so if you’d like to check a book out as a library cardholder, you will just swipe it over a reader. Circulation staff, no longer stuck behind a desk, will become customer service specialists, able to move around the floor and help us find what we’re looking for. The book return will be equally techy and cool, and while it looks a bit like a normal book drop, once you drop your stack of books in the slot, the RFID system will log them back in, and an automated sorting room will get them to the appropriate cart for reshelving. This process is all visible through a window, so if your child likes to watch robots at work (and don’t we all?), you can scurry over to the Children’s Library and watch the sorting magic happen through a special window.
Meaningful advances in green building technology make some pretty significant improvements on how this building affects the environment, too, with the new building requiring 40% less energy to function, despite being 4,000 square feet larger than the old one. Of that energy need, 30% will be generated by roof-mounted solar panels. The roof will also be planted with native sedums, as green roofing materials help to
manage stormwater runoff and reduce heat flux in buildings.
The floors are poured with pozzolan concrete, which is both more durable and significantly better for the environment than traditional Portland cement. And, finally, the frit (a ceramic agent applied on the window glass) is applied in a pattern that resembles both open books and birds in flight, and it will reduce birdstrike, improve heat distribution in the summer, and dissipate glare.
Every element is well-considered. Every space will bear the names of families who donated to help it get built. And every employee is looking forward to the moment in February when the doors open for real, and they get to share this monument to New Canaan’s future.
So Why are People Still Firing Off Lawsuits?
Are 115 westward feet worth a constant barrage from legal artillery? Not in my opinion. The due diligence has been done, and done, and done, and done again. Ultimately, P&Z unanimously approved the library’s plan to move and preserve the 1913 building, and Chair John Goodwin’s studied observation that preservation doesn’t have to be in situ stands out to me as the clearheaded, rational view we’ll all take once the proverbial (and actual) dust has settled. But lawsuits and lawn signs have become New Canaan’s prevailing vehicles for public outrage, our own contributions to the time capsule of 2022 if you will. It’s great to have caring and hyperattentive residents looking out for our resources, our buildings, and our culture. Certain current project proposals, like cell towers and high-density apartment blocks, certainly deserve the furor.
But in the case of this new library, this holiday week, it’s time to put down our swords and get super excited for the magnificent gift coming our way. In 100 years, maybe we’ll need something else. But the way forward is through the sliding glass doors that will open in early February 2023, welcoming you to New Canaan’s future.