When fifth-grader Robert Harris wanted to check out a library book, he used to have to walk more than a mile from his home in New Haven’s historically impoverished Hill neighborhood to the main library on Elm Street. But as of Saturday, Robert can just stop by the new Courtland Seymour Wilson Branch Library, located right next door.
Kathie Hurley, a spokeswoman for New Haven’s public library system, said Saturday’s opening ceremonies marked the first time in 40 years that New Haven has built a new library. About 400 people attended the ribbon-cutting ceremonies, many more than the 250 for which she had planned, she said.
“The neighborhood is excited, and I can’t blame them,” Hurley said. “It’s been a long haul.”
The Wilson library is the first new library built in any Connecticut city during the 21st century. The library is 20,000 square feet, which is about two times the size of an average branch library, said Cathy DeNigris, head of public services for the New Haven library system.
Split into two levels, the library holds collections on an upper floor, and open program spaces are on the lower level. This design allows the lower floor to remain open for community purposes even after the library closes for the day, DeNigris said.
Project Manager Bill MacMullen said the library was built with innovative design features in mind. These include a flexible shelving system that allows room for the library’s current collection of 23,000 volumes to grow to 55,000.
MacMullen said the library is classified as a “green building,” since its energy-efficient lighting and heating and cooling systems are 40 percent more efficient than usual ones.
Michael Morand, the president of the Patrons of the New Haven Free Public Library Board, said that all of the funding for the physical facility came from the private sector: $6 million from New Haven and $500,000 from the state.
The Patrons of the New Haven Free Public Library also raised another $1 million, half of which has gone to purchase books and technology for the Wilson branch and the other half of which is being dedicated to renew collections and services at New Haven’s four other libraries.
“This branch represents not only an investment in the Hill neighborhood, but it is serving to revitalize the entire library system throughout the city,” said Morand, who is also Yale’s associate vice president for New Haven and State Affairs.
Hurley said plans for the library began in 2001, when she and other administrators in the library system held several community meetings with Hill residents. The final design was reviewed by the whole community in a neighborhood meeting, she said.
Morand said the Hill, which has not had a library in over 20 years, was an obvious choice for the location of the city’s fourth library. About 10,000 to 15,000 people live in the Hill, many of whom are from immigrant families, he said.
“Public libraries play a central and instrumental role in providing access and opportunity for new Americans, so the Hill’s role as a center of immigration is another terrific reason for public investment in this new branch,” Morand said.
Nancy Moscoso-Guzman, Hispanic services coordinator and acting branch manager for the Wilson Library, said the library will offer many books and services geared towards the 49 percent of the Hill population that is Spanish-speaking.
“We’re emphasizing ESL in this library, so we’ll be able to give people who need it resources to help them learn English,” Moscoso-Guzman said.
She said the library will offer literacy programs, English tutors, computer training and an early childhood room stocked with toys. The library will also work with the Head Start program across the street with the aim of establishing an early bond with young children.
The library is named for Courtland Seymour Wilson, who was a leader in the Hill neighborhood and in New Haven for decades, Eva Wilson ’10, Wilson’s granddaughter, said.
City Librarian James Welbourne said he expects the new library’s extensive programs will serve as a model for the other New Haven library branches.
“What we hope is that [the Wilson library] will inform us as we revitalize and rebuild the other branch libraries,” Welbourne said.
But for some residents, such as Sabrina Gates and her daughter Ashauantae, the library’s deepest impact will be local.
“The library is real nice,” Gates said, as they explored the children’s area on Saturday. “Already I see they have a great selection of books for kids.”