The Chilmark Public Library expansion project is the talk of the town. Proponents of the project are scurrying about the community, holding meetings in homes in an effort to raise the necessary votes in the next special town meeting, scheduled for Nov. 19.
It is a more significant political contest than any selectmen's race in years. For many it is a reminder of the building of the new elementary school, which opened in 1999.
Ever since the last special town meeting, in September, when the $2.1 million project was indefinitely postponed because of concerns about its size, library trustees and their followers have been on the defensive. They are out trying to firm up support they thought they could count on. If their effort fails, the town loses a $1.1 million commitment from the state Board of Library Commissioners.
The trustees already have raised $800,000 in donations from the community, and will be asking voters for close to $300,000 in taxpayer dollars to make up the remaining expected cost.
For proponents of the library, it is a race against time and against opposition within town that is hard to define. If they fail, a project with roots going back more than a dozen years may fall flat.
Norman Freed, chairman of both the library trustees and the library building committee, said this week the trustees are taking additional steps trying to get the information out. He recently used a can of silver spray paint to draw a line on the property to demonstrate where the new addition will be built. Each of the next two Sundays, coffee hours have been scheduled at the homes of supporters to give everyone a chance to talk openly about the project, and to ease the concerns of those worried about too much change coming to the town.
Catherine Thompson, the library's director of almost 13 years, has given personal tours of the building, highlighting proposed improvements. The 1790 farmhouse, which was moved in the 1850s to the present location, will be renovated and saved from immediate foundation problems.
She shows an overcrowded children's room, where books are accessible but patrons can't find much room to look at them. There is no space for after-school activities.
The hardest thing he has faced in the last couple of weeks, Mr. Freed said, is the charge by people who once supported the library project that they weren't properly informed.
All appeared okay when voters were given a view of the renderings last spring, and the state thought well enough of the effort to award more than a million dollars.
Now some of the strongest opponents of the project are concerned not with what goes on inside of the building but how it looks from the road. Last month, using digital wizardry, architects doctored photographs of the library to give the public an idea of what they will see from Beetlebung Corner along State Road.
"People have been pleasantly surprised that they can't see a good part of the new building from State Road," Ms. Thompson said.
The library is the second smallest on-Island in terms of space, but it has the second largest collection of books. There is very little room for the public to enjoy the 31,000 items in its collection, and no room to grow. Only a few chairs are available for reading, and the historical collection is out of view - hidden in closets for lack of space.
If the library project were to fail, Mr. Freed said, the town still would face a high cost to save the current building, which is unsafely settling on a weak and changing foundation. "A significant portion of the money committed by the state goes to the restoration of the farmhouse, making the building ready for the 21st century," Mr. Freed said.
In 1985, 1997 and again in 1998, the library trustees examined the space needs of a rural community that uses the building to excess. Among other findings, each of the studies makes the point that the children's room is inadequate given its important role in the community.
When the Chilmark School closes in the midafternoon, there is no place at the library for youngsters. The room serves as the elementary school library but lacks room for children to sit. An expanded library would feature a children's room of 1,380 square feet, versus the present 600.
Ms. Thompson said there has always been strong support from within the community for using the library as a place to serve the town's youngest citizens, from toddlers to school age.
Visitors' space would also be expanded under the plan. There would be a new media room where the community could read, meet or attend lectures.
Mr. Freed said Chilmarkers like their library's location at the center of town and its status as a meeting place when other buildings are closed for the season.
The library was one of only 10 in the state to receive a grant from the $17 million in funds earmarked for expansion. Among the 60 libraries that applied for funding is Oak Bluffs's, which was put on a waiting list.
"Except for a few chairs and window seating there is nowhere for a person to sit and quietly look at a book," Ms. Thompson said. "We've had to turn people away who are looking for a place to study," she said.
Project architects faced quite a challenge, she said. "You can't dig down because the water table is so high. You can't go up because of zoning restrictions. You can't go toward the road or toward the post office because of their leaching field. You can't move the parking lot. You can't build too close to the school because of their ball field.
"I think the architects met the challenge with a viable design that is in keeping with the scale of other buildings in the center of town," she said.
There may be resentment among residents because the library trustees once pledged that construction wouldn't require financial help from taxpayers.
At the special town meeting in September, a former member of the building committee explained what changed. Under the original plan, said Lois Mayhew, state funds were not anticipated until 2002, which would have given the trustees more time to raise the additional $300,000. Unfortunately, the good news came too soon; the state approved the project for building this year.
The $300,000 anticipated is only an estimate. The final cost will be determined when the town receives construction bids next Thursday. The bid opening is at 3 p.m. and the finance committee is scheduled to meet at 4:30 p.m. to look over the numbers.
Final approval could come at the special town meeting. The first warrant article asks for approval of the library design, and the second appropriates money for the project.