With New Leader, Institute Library Tackles Fiscal Challenge

Brian Slattery PhotoThe Institute Library is changing its organizational structure as it works, at last, to address structural problems with its aging building. But everything’s going to be OK.

That was the word from incoming Operations Manager Eva Geertz and incoming Board Chair Maryann Ott this week at the long-running membership library on Chapel Street, in a message announcing the elimination of its executive director position and thus bidding farewell to Valerie Garlick, who held the position for two and a half years.

Eliminating the position became necessary because, the Institute Library’s Chapel Street building, among many other problems, has a leaky roof. Fixing it, according to very preliminary estimates, could cost about $300,000.

“It’s been a regular challenge for the library to support itself with a full-time ED, all the utilities, and insurance — all that for a building that was built in 1876,” Ott said. “The board did a lot of analysis, a lot of careful evaluation. It was not an easy decision by any means.”

Founded in 1826, the Institute Library is Connecticut’s oldest circulating independent library and one of the last of its kind in the country. It was founded as the Young Men’s Institute Library and in the 19th and early 20th centuries was a hub of community activity and public debate. After World War II, it entered what Ott called its “sleepy years,” which lasted until the early 2000s.

“During those years, the board neglected the building. Band-Aids got put on issues,” Ott said.

The time for Band-Aids is nearing its end. “The situation with the roof is serious,” Ott said. Water enters the building every time it rains, and there are clear signs of water damage. The entire roof of the building needs to be redone along with chimney work.

“There’s also a very mysterious leak in the back of the building that’s coming from the roof,” Ott said. The board is considering “taking care of that immediately with the funds that we have,” but that still leaves the majority of the work.

Replacing the roof and repairing the chimneys —  in addition to being a complicated construction job in and of itself —  has additional complications in getting a construction crew to the roof to do it. Being on Chapel Street, the library building directly abuts its neighbors. To its rear is the Robert N. Giamo Federal Building and its accompanying plaza, whose managers are unlikely to allow a construction crew to park equipment and materials there for an extended period of time. “It’s all about security,” Ott said. “Everybody who we talk to says it’s a nightmare.”

That leaves attacking the problem from Chapel Street itself, requiring extensive scaffolding and at times street disruptions.

“It couldn’t be more complicated,” Ott said. Those complications drive the price to $300,000 —  a hefty price tag for an organization that listed $1,271,158 in assets and revenues of $220,592 in 2016.

In response, the Institute Library has had to pull back on expenses. But staff and board are hopeful that, by taking on Geertz as part-time operations manager, they won’t need to diminish programming.

And Geertz — a former board member and longtime volunteer — is perhaps ideally suited to the job.

Institutional Memories

Geertz remembered helping in the effort to clear out the Institute Library’s third floor shortly after becoming a board member. That was about 10 years ago, when the third floor was unusable, filled with shelving and books in plastic bags. It now holds an art gallery, a listening room for vinyl records, and a reading room.

“Isn’t there something that can be done here?” she recalled asking. “I don’t know how to achieve it. But these are rooms that could be brought back to life. And we have to figure out what’s in here.”

Geertz became a member of the Institute Library in 2002. She began attending board meetings (as members are invited to do) in 2006. In 2007, the national economy slid into crisis, and the library felt its effects. It was the end of the library’s “sleepy years.” Geertz played a part in waking it up.

The people on the board were impressive, even a little intimidating, “pillars of the community,” Geertz said. But “there was nobody on the board who was a book man.” Geertz, meanwhile, had made a career as a bookseller and working with rare books. At the first few meetings she attended, she sat silently and listened to the board’s conversation.

“Eventually I just couldn’t stay quiet anymore,” she said.

She offered advice on how to improve the library’s acquisition of books, saving the organization money. In return, members invited her to be on the board.

“I was this young Turk,” Geertz said. Those who invited her saw that she had knowledge and energy to offer. “Other people were worried that I was going to disrupt everything, honestly, and they were right, in retrospect,” she said.

Geertz met Will Baker at a dinner at Christ Church in 2008. Baker was working at the William Reese Company, a rare book dealer on Temple Street. Geertz told him about the library. “If you work at Reese,” she recalled saying, “you should have a look at this place because it’s so crazy” — a place that, thanks to its sleepy years, was “a building in amber, except that the amber had cracks, and the weather was getting in.”

Baker visited the library and “he was just enchanted,” Geertz recalled.

Baker was then working toward his masters in library science. One of his program’s projects was to build a website for a library. Baker made a pitch to the board to create one for the Institute Library. The board agreed. (“I hope he got an A on that project,” Geertz said.)

At the time, the board was considering taking on an executive director to boost membership, throw events, and spearhead fundraising. Board members asked Geertz if she was interested. “You wouldn’t want me to be the face of the library,” Geertz recalled saying. She suggested they talk to Baker instead.

“Will was really our leap of faith that it was doable,” Ott said. “Eight years ago, back then, it was a sleepy, little-known organization. Will was amazing and showed the board and community the potential of the place.”

“It was a huge gamble,” Geertz said, because it meant taking funds from the library’s reserves. But “Will was the Pied Piper. He brought people in and was charming and had beautiful handwriting, and he was a great listener.”

The library’s programming took off. There was Amateur Hour, a guest lecture series; The Word, a youth poetry jam; the LGBTQ* Youth Kickback; the Poetry Institute, Storysharing, and Listen Here! reading series; art gallery openings; and a host of other events from concerts to pig roasts.

A dedicated executive director, Baker woke up the library. Baker’s life eventually took him to Pittsburgh and then to Brooklyn, N.Y., where he is now a rare book dealer. Natalie Elicker took over from him and continued the work. Garlick took over from Elicker. (Daisy Abreu served as acting ED while Elicker was on maternity leave, and Martha Murray served as acting ED during the search that ended in Garlick’s hiring.)

Meanwhile, the board continued to worry about its finances, still depleted from the financial crash of 2007. Members understood that this year, the building’s renovations couldn’t be put off any longer. The board had to eliminate its executive director position, but didn’t want to eliminate its programming too. So it hired Geertz.

Looking Ahead

Geertz said she fully expects to keep the library’s current level of programming, including The Word and Listen Here!. For those who attend its many events, nothing is likely to change. She is meeting soon with the library’s volunteers to determine what hours the library can be open. She remains optimistic that it will stay opened from Monday to Saturday, as it is now.

“It will be a jigsaw puzzle, but we will put it together,” Geertz said.

While Geertz runs the library’s day-to-day operations, Ott is optimistic that the board can raise the funds needed to repair the building. Among the Institute Library’s board members is Laura Boyer, an architect who “has worked for her career in historic preservation situations,” Ott said. “She knows a lot of resources out there in terms of grant funds.” Previous ED Natalie Elicker was able to raise funds already for restoration. Counting Well Fargo’s contribution of $23,811.06 through the state’s Neighborhood Assistance Act Tax Credit Program, the library has raised about $50,000 already. In addition, Ott said, “we have some wonderful patrons, champions of the library, who have been generous in the past with our operating needs and care about the building, so there will be some personal philanthropy.”

Down the road, Ott said, the Institute Library plans to hold a public fundraising campaign directed at its membership of around 500 (“which is phenomenal,” Ott said) and other people who use the library.

“We feel strongly that the members care and will help when asked,” Ott said. “We have the revenue from the storefront.” (The library, which owns the building, rents the ground floor space to Civvies, a vintage clothing shop.) “We have membership dues. We have fundraising events. So that is doable.”

“We have to face that the structure, how we’ve been administrating things, has to change,” Ott said. But “this little stalwart library survived the Civil War, two world wars, the Great Depression,” she said, and it did so “by being smart enough to contract and expand as needed to survive the lean times.”

The Institute Library also has a corps of dedicated volunteers. With the restructuring, “we are not struggling to meet the operating and overhead costs,” Ott said. “We’re a long way from closing our doors.”

“I see a future where the library grows again incrementally” once the renovations are done, Ott added, eventually employing a full-time program manager and possibly another executive director. “All of that is part of the strategy to grow again, but be more incremental and sustainable in how we grow.”

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