Manchester Community Library rings in third anniversary

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MANCHESTER — As the Manchester Community Library prepares to celebrate its third anniversary, Executive Director Betsy Bleakie hopes to continue a long legacy of serving the Northshire community.

That legacy began well before ground was broken in 2013, however. Tracing it's history back to the opening of the Mark Skinner Library in 1897, Manchester's community library has born witness to the last 120 years of the town's evolution.

In considering the library's place in Manchester's future, Bleakie hopes that the MCL can continue to provide a "third place" for both locals and visitors alike.

"They say that a library is your third place," Bleakie said. "You have your home, you have your work, but people need a third place. That's what a library can be."

Breaking Ground

When the library's leaders chose to construct a new library in 2007, rather than renovating the Village's Mark Skinner Library, the choice did not find unanimous support in the Manchester community.

For self-proclaimed skeptic Michael Powers, it was hard to see the sense in abandoning the existing library that he remembered so fondly.

"We've got an old historic building that's been there for over 100 years," he said. "I didn't see why they couldn't make it work. I was born here, and I was brought up using the Mark Skinner Library."

Still, the Library's board yearned to create a space for more extensive community resources and programming. While plans to renovate the Mark Skinner Library were considered, it was ultimately decided that constructing a new building would be the best way to achieve that goal.

"The decision was ultimately made to build a new library," Bleakie said, noting that the board members utilized community focus groups and forums to gather feedback. "It would have cost us more money to renovate or remodel, and we would have been left with a less than ideal building. It really didn't make sense to throw money at that location any longer."

"From the beginning, we always understood that there was a need in the community," said MCL board member Linda McKeever. "We had a library that was an 1800's building, and wasn't even handicap accessible."

Once the decision was made to relocate, the task of finding a new location began in 2011.

"We researched 17 different potential locations before deciding," Bleakie said. "There was a lot of research that went into it. We were building a 21st century library, so we tried to anticipate trends that may come along down the road."

Still, Powers wasn't convinced that constructing a new library was the right choice for the Manchester community.

"I continued to be skeptical after they started building it, especially when I saw the size," Powers said. "When they had an open house about three-quarters of the way through building though, I began to think that maybe I was wrong."

A Community Library

After more than a year of construction, the Manchester Community Library celebrated its grand opening on November 15, 2014. Since then, Bleakie has been heartened by the community's embrace of the institution.

"We're being used even more than we could have responsibly anticipated," Bleakie said. "Last year over 60,000 people walked through the door, and I'm sure it's up for this year."

"None of us really knew the extent that it would change the community, and be embraced by the community in turn," McKeever said. "We knew that it would be a good thing, and we had a vision, but we were embraced so immediately by Manchester and the surrounding communities."

Even Powers slowly shirked his skepticism in the months following the MCL's grand opening.

"I spent some time going there and realized it had become much more than a library for the people in the town," he said. "I suddenly began to realize that something was taking place that I had not perceived before."

One of the biggest differences between the MCL and its predecessor, according to Bleakie, is the wealth of programming made possible by the increased space in the library. That space, which can be rented by community organizations, also provides a revenue stream for the MCL.

"It fills a lot of needs," McKeever said. "This is a space that has enabled other organizations, like the Manchester Historical Society of the Lions Club, to offer their programs."

"I see now that there was a stigma attached to the old library that they never could have broken," Powers added. "It was a place you went to, got your books, and left. Now, it's just alive with ideas."



Building a Future


In assessing their future, the MCL hopes to use the Northshire community itself as a guide.

"We will always be a vital and valuable resource, as long as we continue to support what's happening in town and help to lead," Bleakie said. "Hearing and listening to what's needed, and then doing our best to provide it — I think that's a smart way to ensure our relevance."

"One of the keywords we use in our strategic planning is `relevant,'" McKeever said. "The library needs to continually stay relevant to the community that we exist in. Even the building itself was designed to change over time."

Though it's impossible to know what the future may have in store for the library, its proponents are certain that community will remain at its center.

"It's there for everybody's use, it's really become a kind of beacon for everything happening in Manchester," Powers said. "It really is the community's library."



Reach Cherise Madigan at cmadigan@manchesterjournal.com, or by phone at 802-490-6471.

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