Ames Free Library On The Cusp Of A Great New Era
Community and Cultural Treasure Enters Exciting Period
Included, in the signature on the emails that Ames Free Library director Madeline Miele Holt sends out is this quote from Cicero: "If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need."
Madeline's email signature also includes the slogan of the Ames Free Library: "Where the Community Connects."
Indeed, at the Ames Free Library, you will find not just a library, but also a garden, both magnificent, and both serving the mission to which Madeline and library staff and the library's board are passionately committed: making more people aware of the extraordinary and growing value of the library's resources – and educating and bringing more people into the fold of the library as a community center and meeting place, a venue in which people of all ages can learn and share, become enriched, and grow together.
"We are pro-active in running the library, and are always looking to improve and better serve the community," said Madeline, who was the assistant director of the Ames Free Library from 2000 until becoming the library's director in July 2008. "We are building a campus here; we are launching new programs, and are strengthening and making better those we have in place. We are focusing on development and fundraising. It is a busy and exciting time."
Madeline said, "In fiscal 2010, we ran 510 programs in which a total of 8000 people participated."
Now, let me tell you, I was a grade-schooler in Easton in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and a 1981 graduate of Oliver Ames High School, and today's Ames Free Library is not the Ames Free Library I knew when I was growing up.
For sure, the library – among the many bequeaths of the Ames family to Easton – which opened its doors in 1883, is still housed in architectural beauty and splendor: a building designed by Henry Hobson Richardson, among the most distinguished and accomplished architects in American history.
The influence and stamp of Stanford White and Augustus St. Gaudens – who along with Richardson were on the "A Team" of designers and architects of "America's Renaissance" and Gilded Age – are also found at the library: White's picturesque and intricate gargoyles are seen on the exterior of the library, and within, much of the beautiful woodwork, including the distinctive barrel-vaulted ceiling (made of butternut wood) in the book stacks room, are the design of White. In the Fireplace Room, the fireplace is a White creation, and its inlay relief that depicts Oliver Ames Jr. was sculpted by Gaudens.
But the Ames Free Library of 2011 is far different than the one I knew as a kid and teenager. Today's version has a lot more to offer than the books and magazines and newspapers of yesteryear.
Today, the Ames Free Library is a place of both hard-copy and digital print, computers with high-speed Internet access and Microsoft software programs, stacks of movie and documentary DVDs, music CDs, audio books, automated and digital checkout and return of resources, and a busy schedule and roster of programs for people of all ages and many different interests
It is part of a regional network of public libraries whose resources are available to all who are members of any one of the libraries in the network.
And all the resources of the Ames Free library are free. Check out to bring home your favorite thriller novel or motion picture or book on CD, and it doesn't cost a cent (provided you bring it back on time).
Use a computer to research or web surf or write a research paper. Send out an email.
As well, yes – just as in the past – there are still plenty of places in the Ames Free Library to sit in quiet in comfort and quiet and read and to contemplate. Ensconced in a chair in the Fireplace Room, reading a book or looking through one of the many books, newspapers or magazines the library offers (or bring your own reading material), one can imagine he or she is kicking back in the richly appointed study of an aristocrat.
Ames Free Library staff members are knowledgeable, responsive, and friendly.
Just about anywhere in the library you can use your own notebook or laptop computer to access the library's Wi-Fi Internet connection.
"Technology is at the forefront of how we are making the library a place where more people can find more of the resources they need," said Madeline, who from the 1980s through the mid 1990s, worked in management and sales for companies that created digital and online databases and library systems. "Just to take our online newsletter, for example – the newsletter is emailed to 4500 people, of which about 25 percent open the email; this 'open' rate is the envy of direct e-mail marketers everywhere."
Madeline said, "We have programs here that are popular, and on which we are receiving strong and positive feedback; to name a few we have book clubs, a 'foodie' group, story times for young people, a speakers series, and a knitting club; and through our 'Easton Reads Together' program we ran and sponsored many events to take advantage of the considerable natural and conservation spaces in town; we promoted the NRT's nature walks at Sheep Pasture and visits to the 'Wild Place' at the Children's Museum, and other 'green' events and much, much more."
Over the past few years, the Ames Free Library has had small architectural changes made to it, and undergone minor construction. The changes have made the library more physically accessible, modern, increased its space, and improved lighting.
I'll give you an example. In the 1970s, going down into the basement area to use a restroom was a bit of exercise in anxiety. It was dark down there, and during cold months the coal-fired furnace would groan in operation. Today, the basement area – where there are two new restrooms – is where the main entrance of the library is located; it is bright and well lit and colorful, and includes a multi-corridor room of book stacks.
The Ames Free Library had recently increased its footprint beyond the main building. In 2007, the library purchased Queset House, an English style cottage framed in wood that is located to the rear of the library about 150 yards at the end of a dirt road. Oakes Angier Ames, an industrialist, had the cottage built in 1854.
In 2009, the Ames Free Library signed a 99-year lease of Queset Gardens, an Italian style garden – a showpiece of its time – which is behind the library and adjacent to and on the south side of Queset House. Winthrop Ames (son of Oakes Angier), a Broadway producer and playwright, who split his time between living at Queset House and in New York City, designed and commissioned the construction of the garden which was completed in 1911. Following the death of Ames in 1937, the garden became overgrown and fell into disrepair.
Yet, within the past year, under the supervision of James Thomas, the library's restoration architect, the garden has been reclaimed. Financing for the project came from private donations and a CPA grant. Labor was provided by local volunteers, among them horticulturists and garden designers, who painstakingly rehabilitated the garden inch by inch. Queset Gardens has almost been returned to its original grandeur.
The library also owns the pink colored cottage that sits diagonally across the street from the main library building.
"Additional space and more facilities will enable us to run more programs and to better serve Easton," said Madeline. "I have said before that I would like to see the Ames Free Library become the best library in America. And why not? Why not set that as a goal?"
Madeline Miele Holt, as the chief administrator of a non-profit cultural organization, lives day in and day out with the pressure to economize and make more efficient operations, and to get the most out of every dollar. She and her staff are keenly focused on fundraising and development and opportunities to increase revenue for the library.
Fifty-six percent of the library budget is provided from endowments from Ames family trusts and gifts, and other private contributions; the Town of Easton contributes 44 percent of the library's budget.
Within the past year, during a period in which use of the library has been increasing steadily and setting new usage highs, the library has cut staff pay and benefits and reduced hours. Last July and August, the library did a count that showed during those months, an average of 450 people a day visited the library and some days saw more than 700 visitors.
"We are devoting considerable resources to planning our fundraising and development," said Madeline. "We want to be strategic and creative. In that we have a wonderful campus, there is a lot of opportunity for us to bring in functions here and retreats for groups, and for birthday parties and reunions. The library and Queset House and Queset Gardens are beautiful for events and functions."
Madeline explained that the library staff and its board are seeking to publicize and leverage for events and development that 2011 marks the centennial of Queset Gardens.
It surely is an exciting time for the Ames Free Library – a time of great promise, a time in which is it poised to benefit more people in more ways.
Take it from me, a writer, a speaker, a lover of learning and books and stories and conversation, a lover of community building and meeting new and interesting people, and one who delights in finding special places to relax and think, the Ames Free Library is a treasure – an absolute treasure.
It is here for your use and enjoyment, and as a resource to help you expand and strengthen your mind.
And it is all for free.