New board leads Kennett Library into the future
01/24/2017 01:15PM ● Published by Richard Gaw
On Nov. 1, 2016, the Library Director Search Committee for the Kennett Library, headed by board member Dr. Brenda Williams Mercomes, began to review the qualifications of 20 candidates in an effort to find the right person to replace former director Donna Murray, who had resigned in order to become the director of the Ridley Township Public Library.
From the stack of resumes, the committee conducted interviews with eight finalists, both on Skype and in person. In December, after a strong recommendation by the committee, the Kennett Library Board of Trustees unanimously chose 30-year-old Megan Walters as the library's new director.
Walters' CV was already weighted heavily in experience: She was managing a branch of the Denver Public Library, and before that, served as the interim director of the Cooper Memorial Library in Opelika, Ala. Yet, it was during her first visit to the library, as a candidate, where the intangibles that Walters carries with her shone immediately. She connected with the young staff through an infectious enthusiasm; she gravitated to their ideas, as if to imply that the future of libraries rested on their vision and courage to redefine the entire definition of what a library is now, and what it should be in the future.
In a way, the start of Walters' tenure, which began on Jan. 9, serves as a final, emphatic exclamation point to Kennett Library's more than year-long search for its definition and, as some would say, its survival. Over that time, the library has undergone a name change, unveiled a new branding campaign, assembled a new board, appointed a board president, hammered out plans for a new facility, and repaired relationships, not only with appointed and elected officials, but with the public it serves in eight surrounding municipalities.
To fully comprehend the magnitude of this turnaround, it is essential to dig back to the fractured—some would say ugly—story of its recent past.
In the Spring of 2015, representatives from the eight municipalities who annually fund the library began to express concern about how the revenue derived from them, as well as from state and county funding, were being managed. On top of that, there was growing frustration from both local officials and the general public about the lack of expediency in finalizing ideas for the selection and construction of a new library site. Back and forth it went, in meetings and in newspaper editorials and petitions. Some wanted to eventually break ground on Waywood Road in Kennett Township, while others argued that the new location needed to remain in the borough.
The board held several public forums, mostly to help dispel the widespread belief that it was incapable of making decisions, as well as respond to the criticism that it chose to rename the Bayard Taylor Memorial Library as "The Kennett Public Library," with no community input. Where was the respect owed to our history? People asked. What happened to Bayard Taylor?
When three board members resigned, that confirmed to some that the board was in the throes of complete dysfunction. In fact, there were even accusations that some of the board members were being bullied and harassed, particularly former library board president Barbara Cairns, who resigned after what several of the departing board members referred to as "an inquisition."
'People of the highest integrity'
In the resignation letter, the departing board members wrote: "We think it is time for a completely new library board with people of the highest integrity and a real dedication to libraries who can work collaboratively...to focus on building the best library and services that taxpayers deserve. While there are several on the board who have demonstrated their dedication to the library and who have strong principles, the members who attacked long-standing board members and their decisions and actions have done little to engage in effective, constructive dialogue or to work toward consensus. We think there is a real lack of moral leadership on this board. The communities whose constituents support the library deserve better from the board members who serve and govern."
The words stuck. On Jan. 19, 2016, by a vote of 8-0, the board voted in a new board membership and stepped up a commitment to a new building. Thomas Swett was appointed by East Marlborough Township in 2015 and became the board's president again, after serving in the same position from 1988 to 1992. Bill McLachlan and Jeff Yetter from Kennett Township were appointed as the new board's treasurer and vice president.
The board also includes Karen Ammon from Newlin Township; Jim DiLuzio from New Garden Township; Margaret Egli from East Marlborough Township; Mercomes; Carolyn Nicander-Mohr of Pennsbury Township; Dr. Loren Pearson from Newlin Township; Bradley Peiper from Pocospson Township;and at-large members Dr. Barry Tomasetti, superintendent of the Kennett Consolidated School District; Chris Larsen of Pocopson Township; Chris Britt of Kennett Township; and Henry Brown of Newlin Township.
"If you're going to turn a situation around, you have to know some people very well, their attention to detail, and whether or not they can project ahead," said Swett, who had also served as chairman of the Chester County Hospital Foundation and Historic Kennett Square, and led fundraising efforts at the Po-Mar-Lin Fire Company. "Soon after we arrived, it became evident that we had certain opportunities to re-orient the community regarding the library."
Before Mercomes joined the board last February, she received a 45-minute phone call from someone who tried to warn her about what she was about to jump into.
"I served in higher education for many years, so I was used to chaos," she said. "The phone call didn't scare me away because I wasn't doing this for me. I was interested in the library as an entity, and in growing it and making it what I thought it could be."
During the first nine months of 2016, the board completed a punch list that helped refocus the library's direction. It carefully reviewed and increased the transparency of the library's financial picture; adopted a long-term vision that sets goals to better position the library as an information resource; kicked off a campaign to increase funding; and developed its first annual report in the 120-year history of the library.
Last April, the board hired consultant Carl Francis from EnvisianStrategic to engineer a 17-step re-branding campaign that led to the adoption of “Kennett Library at the Bayard Taylor Commons,” which Francis said connects the library to a community, but also incorporates, and honors, its history.
Throughout his May 3 presentation at Kennett Township, Francis stressed the importance of incorporating the Taylor name as part of the library's brand. Those who are in a rush to drop the library's reference to Taylor in its name committed a big mistake, he said, because it wiped out a connection to an area that is steeped in history, one that connected Taylor's name as a symbol of that history. Incorporating the Taylor name in the official library name gives Bayard Taylor a job to do, Francis said. He recommended that the library weave Taylor into all future marketing and promotion of the library, in much the way Pierre S. DuPont is integrated at Longwood Gardens. The idea received overwhelming support from the community.
On April 14, the library received a $36,000 Vision Partnership from Chester County to explore the idea of a new community library (matched by Kennett Township), that would eventually move the existing library from its current 11,000-square-foot facility to a modern, 45,000-square-foot, multi-use facility on the corner of Willow and East State Street in the borough. Over the last year, the library's New Building Committee (NBC) has been meeting with the Kennett Borough Council to discuss the council's proposal to work with the library on the concept for the new building, that would dedicate 30,000 square feet to the library, and 15,000 square feet to new borough offices, the police station and municipal courts.
The project will be designed by Lukmire Architects, a Virginia-based architectural firm who has designed more than 40 public library facility projects in Virginia and Maryland.
This past fall, the firm held five “Vision” sessions with local residents to get community input for a new library.
Fourteen years ago, the library bought a 5.3-acre site on Way's Lane near Waywood Beverage in Kennett Township, for $500,000, with the vision to build a new facility there, but after years of public outcry, the board nixed the idea. The chief reason for choosing the borough site came down to location.
"[The library is] the economic driver for the borough," Yetter said. "We get 120,000 people a year who come into this library, and in every course in community planning, it says that you keep your resources in the town. You don't send them out of town. When we met with Dr. Tomasetti, the first thing he said was, 'Do not disenfranchise my students by taking the library out of the borough. I have so many students who live in the borough, who walk to the library.'"
With a site of the new building apparently finalized, the next hurdle for the board is to determine ways of raising the funds needed to build it. Although they said that all estimates are still very preliminary, Swett and Yetter said that the library has close to $3 million in reserve that would be dedicated to an estimated $10 million price tag for a new facility.
The remaining $7 million will come from a capital campaign, scheduled to begin this summer, which will involve two stages: A silent campaign, likely to kick off this summer, where outreach will be targeted to large donors; and a public campaign, which will likely begin during the first quarter of 2018.
“We are retaining outside counsel who are thoroughly familiar with the area, as well as experienced with all that goes into preparing for a capital campaign,” Swett said. “We get the impression that, depending upon the feasibility study they will conduct, that the money is there. There is a likelihood that some of funding will come from individuals who may have never given to a capital campaign before.”
While the search begins to put the campaigns in place, which, if the money is raised in 2017, could potentially open the doors to a new building by 2019, there are already signs that the work of re-connecting Kennett Library to its constituents is paying off. An annual appeal campaign sent to residents in all eight municipalities has seen 369 private contributions to the library.
“The contributions we received were so welcome, but it's all part of our goal to educate people about what's going on here,” Yetter said. “We want to give Kennett Library a new face in the community it serves, and now we're on their radar.”
"In my mind, success comes down to collaboration on every facet of the library," Walters said. "It's collaborating with the community. It's collaborating with the board. It's collaborating with the staff. It's not just one facet that's making this happen. We all have to work together in order to make the library something that everyone is behind, in the same way."
"There are several key words happening here," Swett said. "Collegiality. Confidence. Talents. Skills. That, put together, caused the Kennett Square Borough to approach us to build together. How do you measure success? To me, it was an outside entity coming to us and to consider building, together.
"We have a goal, and if you have a goal, then pieces begin to fall into place."
Chester County Press Staff Writer Steven Hoffman contributed to this report.
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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