Wilton Library officials know how vital the organization is to the town, its Wilton Center neighborhood and residents. Now, after completing a six-month deep dive, staff and trustees are embarking over the next three years on a strategic plan to direct the library’s evolution to meet the community’s changing needs and demographics.
Wilton Library Board President Rob Sanders and Executive Director Caroline Mandler spoke with GOOD Morning Wilton editor Heather Borden Herve about the findings from the assessment and the Strategic Plan 2023-2026 that was developed.
Typically a recurring five-year internal process, a planned self-examination in 2020 had been postponed due to the COVID pandemic. By 2022, as the community emerged, officials recognized how much Wilton — and the library along with it — had changed.
“Whereas certain elements of our service were more important to different groups before, we now have more young people who’ve got more voice about that. And some of the people well-known in town have moved or passed on and we’re serving a new population,” Sanders said. “The Trustees recognized the need to critically analyze the library’s strengths and resources and find new ways to serve our increasingly diverse community.”
The new Board of Trustees and Mandler (newly appointed herself) opted for a more comprehensive approach with professional consulting firm Plan A Advisors, which conducted 22 confidential interviews and four focus groups for the assessment.
The library’s deep dive to chart its path forward coincides with the Town of Wilton‘s own Master Plan review process, which has prioritized Wilton Center as the first area of examination. It’s a fortunate coincidence for an organization that is both figuratively and geographically the center of Wilton.
“Looking at how the library is at the center of that overlap, first is what’s the library’s role in the community? Second is, how it relates to pedestrian circulation, architectural scale, economic development and vitality of the center,” Sanders said. “We’re going to lead and do our part to make sure there is this social core to generate the economic activity that comes from it, and the residential desirability that comes from it.”
He noted that neither Town Hall nor any Wilton schools are located in Wilton Center proper. “We are also kind of the municipal center for most people. A lot of people have never been in Town Hall, but they hopefully have been in the library.”
The findings will help library officials contemplate several steps, including:
- adapting its facility’s spaces and physical footprint
- expanding and varying its program offerings
- forging and solidifying relationships with Wilton businesses and civic organizations
- capitalizing on its resources, including the marquee asset of the Brubeck Collection
- developing a new base of donors and volunteers
- ensuring it can continue investing in new resources, staff, technology and infrastructure
“One of the best things that’s come out of this is the increased opportunity for collaboration, both with nonprofits and organizations in town, but also with businesses,” Mandler said. “There’s all these different people this plan will be incredibly useful for, because it’s really about the town more than the library.”
Play Space, Languages, Civic Discourse and More
Mandler shared an example of how the process uncovered something about a growing Wilton demographic that uses the library that will likely inspire a change.
“We have a beautiful Children’s Library with great programs, but when we asked this round table of parents of young children that moved to town in the last year or two, they’re really looking for space and time to connect with other parents and have their kids explore free play,” she said. “Other towns have more playgrounds than Wilton. School playgrounds are great, but you can’t use them during the day. So the library can play a really specific role in building on the structured educational programs that we offer in creating more play space.”
“That was really surprising and actually actionable for us because with some small changes, maybe bigger changes, we can really meet this generation of parents where they are,” Mandler added.
Rather than relying on assumptions about the community, the effort has identified other concrete findings that will allow library officials to make more intentional plans.
“It’s not surprising that [Wilton’s] demographics have changed, but it was good to have research confirm that. We now have a whole objective around diversity and being more intentional about languages we have in the collection, what kinds of trainings our staff may be doing in the future, what kinds of programs we’re offering,” Mandler said.
Another area that drew attention was civic dialogue in light of brewing social and political tensions.
“Nationally libraries are facing some challenges right now — literally book challenges, challenges about the types of programs they’re able to do. It was gratifying to see that come up in interviews and round tables, that people are aware. It’s something we talk about a lot, in terms of what books we’re putting on display or ordering. Now, we have specific objectives to address that, looking at all of our policies, making sure that we’re as prepared as we can be for any situations,” Mandler said.
Making More of the Brubeck Collection
Library officials were surprised to learn that its Brubeck Collection may be underappreciated by many Wiltonians. One of the four primary goals officials have identified in the Strategic Plan moving forward is how to maximize and capitalize on this unique asset so significant to the jazz world, American music and history.
“Something near and dear to Wiltonians is the Brubeck legacy. No other municipal library of our scale — or pretty much any scale — has such a collection in the country. We have this thing, but it does no good if it doesn’t serve as a springboard for dialogue about things Brubeck experienced and felt passionate about. It is an opportunity to speak to [the typical Wilton library user, and] a larger community, something that we can stimulate interest in jazz, in human rights, in international relations,” Sanders explained.
That includes performance and education opportunities as well as expanding online access to the Collection.
Would that tie into exploring a possible expansion of the footprint, especially when the current building has its limits?
“There’s just simply max headroom, we can’t find it. That’s a fun goal to explore,” Sanders said, adding that the strategic planning process was “liberating” to think about possibilities.
“When we think about how new programs are implemented, what could make the facility better? We take up pretty much all of our footprint and as part of the center master plan, everybody relies on being able to park at the library and go to the Village Market and to a restaurant and to this and that. It’s hard to imagine that we can take up much more footprint, but there is up and there are holes in the donut. Someday maybe those will be examined,” Sanders said, adding that “there’s nothing immediate on the horizon.”
Mandler said every aspect of the facility will be looked at moving forward. “Do we have enough study rooms? Do they really need to be soundproof now that everyone’s doing Zoom calls all the time? Our security system, there’s different kinds of library technologies that could be introduced,” she said.
And as demand changes from actual books and DVDs to different types of media and digital materials, that shapes what plans may become.
“Our ebook circulation has doubled since Covid… the Brubeck Room seemed huge [seating] 150 all those years ago. Now I wish it was 400 people because there are programs that just fill up so fast. So the trend in libraries is program space, digital collections, we’ll be looking at all of that,” Mandler added.
Guiding the Mission and Vision
Both Sanders and Mandler are excited by what the Strategic Plan stands for.
“It’s both a document of how well Wilton’s library, its town, its volunteers, its staff, have done to date. But it also represents accountability, worthy of trust and worthy of support. It shows what we want to do. It shows what you should expect of the library and hopefully broadens our outlook on what can be done for the town,” Sanders said.
It also gave the library a new vision statement:
“The real key is that it’s going to be an environment where everyone, is made to feel safe and welcome. That kind of vision statement will have a real impact on the kinds of programs that we do. And hopefully our level of service, which is already great, we want to make sure that we’re being truly welcoming to everyone,” Mandler said.
The Wilton Library Strategic Plan for 2023-2026 can be viewed online.