The Edgartown library must expand now or else fail the community it serves.

That's the message the board of trustees of the Edgartown Free Public Library is hoping to convey to town officials and voters this week as it starts a critical phase of its push for expansion of the century-old facility. A crucial vote next week will decide the first step in what the board hopes will be a successful bid to bring the library into the 21st century.

"There is no other option for the library other than expansion at its current site," said Tony Bongiorno of the library planning committee. "The community is now faced with a golden opportunity and one the town really can't afford to pass up."


The board will present its plan and speak to voters' concerns at a special town meeting at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, August 31, in the new Edgartown Elementary School. (And an open house on the subject will be held at the library tomorrow, August 25, from 5:30 to 7:30). At issue is the town's opportunity to purchase the Captain Warren House adjacent to the library, property which the board says is central to expansion. A vote will be cast at this meeting to authorize an appropriation for the property's $3.5 million cost. If this vote garners enough support, the town at large will go to the polls on Sept. 2 for a Proposition 2 1/2 override exempting the purchase debt from the town's spending cap.

"This is just the first step," said Richard Fenn of the library planning committee. "If the town cannot secure this land, then expansion of the Carnegie site is impossible and we'll be left with a 20th century library struggling to meet the needs of a 21st century community."

Under the board's proposal, which is part of a broader 20-year plan, the historic Captain Warren House would be joined with the current Carnegie building by a new structure. The Warren House, which recently became available after the Daggett House was sold this past spring, and the new building would add much needed space to what board members say is the Island's most outdated and inadequate public library.

"Currently we have no meeting rooms for a book club to meet, or for lectures, and practically no space to even sit and read," said library director Ann Tyra. "And that's not even mentioning the total lack of space for more books and periodicals. The library at this time is truly in a crisis situation."

Other town libraries have increased their square footage by at least half since the Edgartown facility was last upgraded in 1975. Chilmark, Oak Bluffs and West Tisbury all have seen space increases of more than 200 per cent in the past 12 years.

"Next year, only Aquinnah will have a smaller library," Mr. Bongiorno said.

The Edgartown library now encloses 6,500 square feet. By contrast, the libraries in both Oak Bluffs and West Tisbury have approximately 15,000 square feet each. The current concept design would increase Edgartown's space to more than 20,000 square feet. "The concept was developed around the library's space needs now and in the future and the desire to keep it at its North Water street location," Mr. Bongiorno said.

In a presentation of the proposal to the Gazette last week, the members of the library planning board stressed the unique and urgent nature of the Captain Warren House purchase. The library is bounded by the Edgartown Inn to the left and rear, and by North Water street to the south, so the Captain Warren House property sale represents an extremely rare opening for expansion. The likelihood of expansion in any other direction in the near future is almost nonexistent, the members said. "This really is a once-in-a-lifetime chance," said Ms. Tyra.

Diane Bongiorno, chairman of the committee and a member of the board of trustees, said the new concept design provides for functionality while retaining the character and architectural integrity of the Carnegie building. "Edgartown deserves a modern library," she said. "This is a community center that serves all ages. Why not have a facility that meets the needs of all of the community?"

According to the board's plan, once the Warren House is acquired, funding for the construction of the new library, estimated at about $10.3 million, will be sought by the trustees from state and federal grants and private donations. The acquisition of the Captain Warren House, a historic property, will also open the library up to more state and federal grants, the board said.

The purchase of the Captain Warren House also allows the town to retain the land where the library now sits. According to the 100-year-old deed, the town would have to hand over the downtown parcel of land to the heirs of its original owners if the Carnegie building ceases to house the library.

"And that would clear the way for another private downtown residence and that would be both a huge cultural and financial loss for the town," Mr. Bongiorno said. He said the loss of this property coupled with the price of relocation would cost the town more than purchasing the Captain Warren property and expanding at the current site.

At the Edgartown selectmen's meeting last Tuesday, town officials applauded the library planning committee's efforts. Edgartown selectman Arthur Smadbeck offered cautious optimism that the plans will move forward and described the proposal as a "fortuitous project for the town."

The push to obtain the Captain Warren House began in February when the Daggett House, the former bed and breakfast business that also owned the Captain Warren House property, was sold to Burke Ross. After discussing a possible acquisition of the property with Mr. Ross, the library trustees submitted an offer that met his asking price of $3.5 million on behalf of the town. Arrangements to buy the property are currently under negotiation.