On to new challenges: Easthampton library director heading to EMass

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  • Nora Blake, director of the Emily Williston Memorial Library in Easthampton since January 2016, is leaving for another library post in Ipswich. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Nora Blake, director of the Emily Williston Memorial Library in Easthampton since January, 2016, is leaving for another library post in Ipswich. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Nora Blake, director of the Emily Williston Memorial Library in Easthampton since January, 2016, is retiring. Photographed on Tuesday, July 13, 2021. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Nora Blake, director of the Emily Williston Memorial Library in Easthampton since January 2016, is leaving for another library post in Ipswich. Photographed on Tuesday, July 13, 2021. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Nora Blake, director of the Emily Williston Memorial Library in Easthampton since January 2016, is leaving for another library post in Ipswich. Photographed on Tuesday, July 13, 2021. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 7/17/2021 8:00:09 AM

EASTHAMPTON — Nora Blake has seen her share of challenges since taking the helm of the Emily Williston Memorial Library five-plus years ago.

Not only did she guide the library during a pandemic, but Blake also oversaw a temporary move to Eastworks in 2017 as the library building at 9 Park St. underwent monthslong renovations to its crumbling foundation, and she helped stabilize the library’s leadership after a 10-year period of high turnover among directors.

All the while, services offered at the library continued to grow. Since Blake took over in 2015, the library’s adult attendance for programming increasing by about 35% and youth programming by about 40% to 45% prior to the pandemic.

After more than five years as director of Emily Williston library, Blake, who grew up in Winthrop, is leaving her role to move closer to her family in eastern Massachusetts, where she will start as director of the Ipswich Public Library in September. Her last day at the Emily Williston Library is August 13.

The pandemic “made me reassess what I want in my life,” Blake said. “I decided I wanted to be closer to (family), and more closely involved.”

Blake has been a driving force in adding to Emily Williston’s programming and securing grant funding, according to members of the Public Library Association of Easthampton. Blake was “instrumental” in overseeing obstacles and projects, said Marge Prendergast, vice president of the Public Library Association of Easthampton.

“She handled the pandemic with grace, even though she basically had it all on her shoulders,” Prendergast said. “The board is there to support, but that woman ran an amazing library during the pandemic.”

Elizabeth Appelquist, current president of the Public Library Association of Easthampton, highlighted the library’s expanded services under Blake’s leadership. Additionally, Blake “was basically our hero during the pandemic.”

Funding challenge

Funding has long been another challenge the library faces, Blake said. Unlike many libraries, the Emily Williston library is not a city department and does not receive all of its funding from the municipal budget. But residents commonly hold that misconception, according to Blake.

Easthampton provides the library with $218,927 in city funding, which Blake said is slightly more than half the library’s overall operating budget. The library draws the rest of its finances from its endowment, grants and other fundraising efforts, though Blake hopes to see the city’s funding increase. Over her tenure, Blake has called for the city to provide more funding for the library and eventually cover its entire operating budget.

“We have a contract to provide library services to the city of Easthampton,” Blake said, “and in return the city of Easthampton gives us a sum of money, which is really not adequate and doesn’t grow over time at the same rate that costs grow.”

State minimum wage increases have led the library’s salary expenses to go up by about 5% per year, for instance, but city funding has not risen at this same rate, she said.

“We’ve fallen way behind as far as far as being able to fund this library,” Blake said. “We have an endowment, but it’s really meant for emergencies like when the basement had a foundation problem ... There’s a lot of work to be done on this old building, and that’s really what the funding is meant for.”

Blake recently spoke with Mayor Nicole LaChapelle about the city creating a working group of its employees and library board members to increase funding to the library.

LaChapelle said she doesn’t anticipate that this goal will become a reality, noting “some complications that the library owns their building and endowment.

“I don’t see 100% (in funding) coming under the city,” the mayor said. “But I think we’re going to see a mutually agreed upon, tighter agreement.”

While less common, the Emily Williston library’s funding model is not unique. The Forbes Library in Northampton also has a private endowment but receives a significantly larger portion of funding from the city, which Blake said dates back to stipulations outlined in Charles Forbes’ will.

LaChapelle acknowledged that the library’s endowment “goes fast,” and can’t cover full operating costs. She said that she feels the city has a responsibility to fund the library, but a potential increase would require more public input, and the City Council would need to approve the funding in the city’s annual budget.

“In good faith, I feel like we’re responsible for the library,” LaChapelle said. “But I’m just one of 16,000 people.”

Blake also hopes to see the library secure a new building and sees opportunities in the soon-to-be-vacant Maple Elementary School and Center & Pepin Elementary Schools. With students at the three schools set to move to the upcoming Mountain View School next year, the city has yet to decide the fate of the century-plus old buildings.

“We’ve been talking with the city and hopeful that maybe we can try to build a new library on one of those school sites,” Blake said. “It would be two-and-a-half times the size of this library, it would have modern facilities, meeting rooms, and a much more accessible space than we have now.”

The current building, which finished construction in 1881, has street parking only and minimal space for programs and materials.

The library intends to hire a new director by Nov. 1, according to Appelquist, and will appoint interim leadership until then.

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com.


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