WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange Public Library unveiled its long-awaited lower level meeting space at its Friends organization’s first-year anniversary celebration April 30.
For at least 20 years the area — 1,500 square feet — was used to store books, shelves and other material. But library Director David Cubie always planned to make it a space to host English for Speakers of Other Languages classes and other gatherings. And while there is still much work to do before that vision can become a reality, Cubie said opening up the space for the Friends event represents a huge step forward.
“The lower level turned out great,” Cubie told the West Orange Chronicle in a May 4 phone interview. “It looks fantastic. It’s bright, clean, nice.”
Of course, the area did not get that way overnight. Cubie said the WOPL first started working toward freeing up the space in 2015, when it joined the Bergen County Cooperative Library System, a consortium that allows patrons of participating libraries to check out materials from more than 70 other libraries throughout northern New Jersey. Gaining access to millions of other books allowed the WOPL to weed a lot out of its own collection during the next two years. Specifically, he said, approximately seven rows opened up after getting rid of unneeded reference materials.
Once that was finished, the library staff shifted the books still in circulation that were being kept in the lower level back upstairs, where there was now room for them — a job more complicated than it sounds. Cubie said staff members first had to map out the most advantageous places for the book sections relocated to the main room; for instance, it was decided that large print selections should be in the front so the senior citizens who mostly read them will not have to walk far to reach them. Then the books had to be physically moved to their chosen spots, with the tomes from the lower level being added where they belonged.
That process entailed keeping the downstairs books in order on carts while also making sure they would fit in the room left for them on upstairs shelves. As one can imagine, Cubie said, it was complicated.
“There was a point where we had too many books on some carts, which meant we didn’t have the carts to move other parts,” Cubie said. “We had a logjam and we had to work that out. So it was a great big thumb puzzle moving around 120,000 items.”
After that was done, Cubie said the WOPL was able to recycle the outdated, empty shelves. Likewise, unwanted items such as filing cabinets, drawers and book carriers were donated to the township and the Verona Public Library.
Doing so freed up a lot of room in the lower level, but the space was not left completely empty. Some shelves containing children’s books in circulation as well as books the Friends are planning to sell at its next book sale still had to be handled. So the library director contracted two companies to move the shelves using hydraulic lifts, which picked up each shelf complete with books and rolled it to the back of the area. That saved a lot of time, Cubie said, and it left enough room so that the WOPL could have the floor waxed and walls painted.
The Friends of the Library made the move possible, having agreed to pay the $6,700 cost. It also helped with the manual labor, as Vice President Marge Mingin and secretary Robin Rockman sorted through hundreds of boxes of books to put them all in their appropriate places. That effort — in addition to removing some of the books from the downstairs shelves so they could be moved — took several weeks to complete, according to Mingin. Yet Mingin said it was all worthwhile for the end result.
Friends President Gerald Sweeney agreed that the lower level was a sight to behold once the work was finished, especially after the West Orange Arts Council had loaned some of its art to adorn the walls for the celebration. Sweeney said the space as presented during his group’s gathering gave a taste of what the area could eventually become. And he knows that the 78 township officials, council members and other residents who attended the event were impressed.
“Everyone we saw was really enthusiastic,” Sweeney told the Chronicle in a May 4 phone interview. “Many were astounded that the space had been created or that the lower level of the library even existed, because most of them had not been there except for the book sale that we had in October. And we cleaned it up (since then).”
Township Council President Joe Krakoviak was one event attendee who marveled at the space’s debut. Krakoviak, who serves as Friends treasurer, told the Chronicle he was “stunned” by how large the area was — to the point that he could even hear a slight echo. He remarked that the large cow statue, which was previously kept in storage but now sits in the middle of the room, adds to the sense of adventure the space holds.
Krakoviak said he hopes the new space will get a lot of use.
“This is a great addition to the library and its service to the community,” Krakoviak said in a May 8 email. “I hope this becomes one of the go-to places for people to come together, build greater community and make memories.”
WOPL Board President Sheri Prupis said she too was taken aback upon seeing the lower level at the event, having not been there since January. As she recalled to the Chronicle, Prupis found the space so improved she could not believe it was the same area. She said Cubie and the Friends deserve praise for having the vision and commitment to bringing about something that will benefit the entire community.
And now that the lower level has been opened up, Prupis said she wants to start offering the space to residents as soon as possible, saying she envisions the area hosting everything from senior programs to job-search events. ESOL courses have always been a priority as well, she added, pointing out that the lower level finally gives the WOPL the space it needs to hold regular classes. At the same time, she said expanding the library’s selection of foreign language books will continue as another way of reaching West Orange’s multicultural population.
“We want to recognize and value and honor the diversity and the pluralism here in town by bringing in other collections,” Prupis said in a May 4 phone interview.
Cubie also wants to purchase more foreign language titles and pointed out that the $5,000 American Dream Literacy Initiative Grant the Friends recently obtained on behalf of the WOPL will go a long way toward accomplishing that goal. But much still has to be done before ESOL classes can be offered. First, he said he must meet with an architect who has library experience to discuss how the space can best be used. He said he would like to see retractable dividing walls added so the lower level can alternate between having a large open space and smaller rooms.
Aside from that, Cubie said the WOPL will need more funds to pay for any plans it chooses to pursue. Just offering ESOL courses with professional instructors will cost somewhere in the range of $35,000 to $45,000, he said. As a result, he said the library is looking for grants that cover such expenses. He is also in talks with the West Orange Library Foundation, the nonprofit entity in charge of fundraising for big ticket items.
At the end of the day, Cubie said he is confident the WOPL will achieve everything it wants to do. It just might not happen as quickly as everyone would like, he said.
“It’s taken us two years to get to this point,” Cubie said. “We’ll see how long it will take to get to the next point. We’re going to make sure we do it right.”
Photos Courtesy of David Cubie and Gerald Sweeney