After leading efforts to remake the Ridgefield Library for the 21st Century — the building, the books, the programs — Chris Nolan will retire as library director at the end of 2016, ending a library career of 45 years, the last 16 in Ridgefield.
She’ll miss it. “Every single day is different, and every single day is interesting to me — every single day,” she said.
Nolan made her plans public this week, but the library board has known.
“As a library director, there’s a lot of prep work that goes into handing something off, and there’s the search,” she said. “It’s not the kind of thing where you could give two weeks’ notice.”
“Chris has been a great asset for our community and will leave big shoes to fill as the library seeks new director,” said board member Philip Lodewick.
The process has begun.
“They’ve planned and we’ve got a good, strong search committee that represents different interests,” Nolan said. “I think they’ll be very good at this. That’s a big job for a library board. Whenever that presents itself, that’s one of the most difficult tasks they’ll face, ever, to replace the library director.”
Running the library — an operation with 38 employees working what adds up to more than 27 full-time positions — is continually challenging, and interesting.
“I like the variety. You have to have a lot of different skill sets for this job,” Nolan said.
“I feel very, very lucky I’ve had this kind of a job in several different communities.”
She headed two libraries in Wisconsin, in Milwaukee suburbs, and from 1998 to 2000 she led the library in Ann Arbor, Mich., to a national library-of-the-year award, then came to Ridgefield.
She came from the Midwest and replaced the long-tenured and popular Anita Daubenspeck in December 2000.
“It wasn’t an automatic that I’d end up getting approval by the community, getting connected to the community,” she said. “But I lucked out in that I arrived as Keith Jones was planning the 225th anniversary of the Battle of Ridgefield. … I got to know some of the leaders of the active nonprofits in town, some of the key players. It gave me a good sense of the history of the community.”
It was important. “Libraries are very specifically designed for each community, not the design of the building so much as the collection,” Nolan said.
Ridgefield also got to know her, as she built upon those initial contacts and got involved with the Rotary, the Chamber of Commerce, the League of Women Voters. “I demonstrated to the community that I wanted to know about them, that I wanted to know about Ridgefield, for them to feel that I understand them,” she said.
Lodewick, who has worked closely with Nolan, felt that Nolan’s personality and community involvement had many benefits.
“Chris is smart, collaborative, and very likable,” he said. “Accordingly, she has been able to assemble an absolutely first-rate library staff and library board to lead the transition of the library into the 21st Century. Anybody who uses the library and its many services or attends one of its many programs will probably tell you what a pleasant experience it is to do so. Chris’s leadership makes this happen.
“In addition, she is out and about the community volunteering, supporting, and encouraging cooperation among many of our town organizations. I think they welcome her participation because her efforts are always given for the right reasons – to make the town of Ridgefield a better place.”
Those efforts earned her the Ridgefield Rotary Citizen of the Year award for 2015.
A big part of Nolan’s tenure has been the expansion of the library.
The more than $20-million construction project went from 2012 to 2014 — following years of planning, fund raising and approvals.
“When I was interviewed for the job, the board made it clear they were interested in a library expansion. They felt that they definitely needed a new library or new facility,” she said.
“We worked as a team for a long time to have this become a reality.”
Involving townspeople in the design process and fund raising was a key to the project’s success.
“Part of it was to have the community understand my vision for the library,” she said.
Some consultants were recommending a building as large as 55,000 square feet for Ridgefield, but Nolan felt that plan — more than doubling the old 25,000-square-foot building — was too big for the town. “I didn’t want to recreate the Library of Congress,” she said.
It ended up 44,000 square feet.
“It was much more suited to this community,” she said. “This is a community that enjoys the community feel, and it’s not in our best interest to lose that.
“It’s more contemporary than I would have initially chosen, but I think it is stunning. And the light in the building — people respond very positively to the light.”
The old library was short on natural light.
“You didn’t know during the day what it was like outside,” she said.
A touch she’s especially happy with is the relocation of the sculpture “Storytime” by Glenna Goodacre — a woman and child reading together — from inside the library to a bench in front of the building.
“It’s just sort of welcoming and it looks beautiful there,” Nolan said. “I like that people enjoy sitting on that bench looking out at Ballard Park.”
As for plans following her retirement at the end of the year, Nolan said she’s going on what will be her second safari in Africa. She has three grown sons and may try to get them to join her in going there “before all the big animals are gone,” she said. “These things are vanishing quicker than you’d ever want.”
She finds the idea of an apartment in New York City intriguing — perhaps subletting, while renting out her house in town — but said she has no real plans to move from Ridgefield.
“I’m going to be around for a while, for heaven’s sake,” she said.