Some of the reasons a crowd Thursday celebrated the 10th anniversary of the Hill’s Courtland S. Wilson Branch Library:
• Its blazing fast Wifi and reliably cool air conditioning.
• Its spacious meeting rooms booked from morning to night by civic groups ranging from the Pride Project to the Food Policy Institute.
• How 4-year-old Nydeliz Torres love to come and read her most favorite book, Pete the Cat.
Forty officials, library staffers, friends, and patrons gathered beneath the distinctive sun-filled oculus of the branch gathered for the celebration. Wilson — the first library built in the city in 40 years — has become the busiest branch the New Haven Free Public Library system and an indispensable community meeting place and resource.
City Librarian Martha Brogan hailed her predecessor James Welbourne and and the branch’s eponymous Courtland Seymour Wilson as the mentoring community activist in whose name private support — to the tune of $1 million in gifts out of a total budget of $6.5 million — was raised to make the branch a reality.
“It’s come to be known as the ‘community living room’ here in the Hill,” she said.
That was evident during and after the speeches and festivities as Nydeliz and her day care pals were reading in one corner of the large spacious main reading room. Meanwhile, Hallock Street resident and library patron Latisha Blake sat in her son Jadon’s favorite nook in the building, a sun-filled window seat overlooking the entryway.
Blake, one of the speakers at the event, credited “Ready for the Grade,” a K-3 academic readiness program funded by the New Alliance Foundation for the first time this summer at Wilson, for keeping her other kids, 6-year-old Jason and 7-year-old Kemora, from summer-slumping . She said the program upped their reading levels.
“I’m always here. I love it here,” she said.
The library’s reading rabbit-raising branch manager, John Jessen, characterized Wilson, which he’s helmed for the last four years, as the system’s “first 21st-century” branch. Large community spaces were included in the design, as the role of the library as a societal resource has begun to expand exponentially from only providing books and other forms of info.
He credited the busyness of Wilson in part to the availability of the down-below space that features two large rooms that can accommodate up to 90 people each, two conference rooms, another room that can hold up to about 30 people, and a tech room with 20 computers.
“John reads to us or does something for us,” each time we visit, said Kashonda Lawrence, Nydeliz’s teacher. Lawrence has her group at the library’s door at least once each week to, as she put it, “explore new literature” with the kids.
Those meeting rooms are booked, often solidly, especially on Tuesday nights and on Saturdays, with “seven outside events” on an average Saturday, Jessen added.
I checked the upcoming Tuesday and Saturday with librarian Marian Huggins. Sure enough, Tuesday night features a salsa group; a Boy Scout troupe meeting; an empowerment group called Change Inc; and a food policy committee all coming in between 5 and 7 p.m., because so many spaces are available at once.
On Saturday, between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m., these groups will gather in the meeting spaces, while of course the normal library activities take place upstairs: Mothers for Justice; Smart (a recovery group); I Am (an empowerment group; Pride Pageant; Sisters With A New Attitude; Hill Reunion; and the Urban Life Experience Book Discussion group that will be exploring Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow.
Or to reference the stats provided: 4,059 card holders at the branch, a circulation of 45,943 items, 5,281 people attending programs, and 14,821 computer sessions.
Hail Wilson, Here Comes The New Stetson
Mayor Toni Harp, Brogan, and NHFPL Board Chair Michael Morand used the occasion not only to hail the Wilson branch but also to praise the evolving centrality of the library in the life of community. They also noted the private and successful fundraising model of Wilson a decade ago as an appropriate template for what will be tried again in the months to come as the Dixwell neighborhood gears up for the moving of the Stetson branch across the street into a revived Q House.
“The Hill library is the heart of the Hill, and the library is the heart of New Haven,” said Morand.
“We’ll be looking to reprise what we did here. We’re looking to raise $1 million,” he added. That amount is the contractual match required by a state grant that is paying most of the approximately $14.5 million bill for a rebuilt Q House that contains a reconfigured Stetson.
“We’ve done it here in this a great space, and we have an extraordinary track record for what it means to community,” Morand added.
Because of an increase in city funding in last year’s budget, the branches — including the Ives main branch — have been able, since last week, to add six hours a day, or 24 in total across the system.
Morand said plans for a Wilson-styled, grassroots community fundraising effort for the new version Stetson branch to be built in the Dixwell neighborhood will be announced later this year. If people want to aim for is more than $1 million, that’s fine with him.