WESTERLY — Kathryn Taylor describes herself as an avid hiker and lover of the outdoors. She’s climbed countless New England slopes, worked for a local chapter of the Appalachian Mountain Club and even hiked Mount Kilimanjaro. Now, after 15 years as director of the Memorial and Library Association of Westerly, she can add conquering the mountain that is the local library to her list of achievements.
Looking back on her years in Westerly with less than a week until her retirement, Taylor said she feels proud of what she’s accomplished, particularly in renovating and transforming the interior of the library.
The ever-modest Taylor is quick to add, however, that the $8 million capital campaign to improve the library and surrounding Wilcox Park would not have been possible without the help of a motivated staff, visionary architect and countless others.
“Trying to still function as a library during the renovations when areas were closed was hard,” she said. “But the front line staff were a pleasure to work with the whole time. The genesis for the inner renovations actually came from the staff, who were here long before I arrived.”
Taylor has had a long history of library experience. “I always worked in libraries, starting in high school and college,” she said. “In fact, a librarian at the college was the one who told me I could get a degree in it.”
Taking this advice, Taylor got her graduate degree from the Simmons Graduate School of Library and Information Science in Boston. She later worked as the assistant library director in Medford, Mass., then as library director in Littleton, N.H.
“I was definitely on a career path,” she said. “Then I fell in love with the mountains.”
While New Hampshire seemed ideal for hiking, Taylor said the ad for the Westerly Library opening caught her attention.
“It was an ad for a library with a park,” she recalled. “It seemed perfect because outdoors is what I love. And I have not been disappointed.”
From her first glance into the Westerly Library, Taylor said she immediately noticed the need for renovation in the library’s main reading room, recalling the neon blue metal shelves the books were stacked on at the time.
“That was really a focus for me, to restore the old main reading room,” she said. Even before the capital campaign started, Taylor was able to start work on the room thanks to a donation from the Sculco family specifically designated for that purpose. Now, Taylor proudly shows off the reading room as a centerpiece of the library.
While much of the library was updated, Taylor also worked with the architect to restore the original style to certain areas.
“The idea is that it flows from old to new,” she said. “Each area is designed to reflect its time.”
For example, the media room, which was part of the 1928 addition to the building, is decorated with ’20s-style furniture.
While acting as the driving force behind these changes, Taylor said her relationship with the town was always “excellent.” During her time as director, town funding for the library has increased from about $230,000 to $410,000, according to Taylor, who added that the increase in town funding also helps the library get more money from the state.
“I found people and the area to be very friendly,” she said. “They are strong supporters of the library and insanely crazy about protecting the park.”
According to Taylor, town residents were “actually crying” when they learned about the recent vandalism to the park’s beloved bunny statue.
Taylor added that community donations to the capital campaign, especially in times of economic hardship, were representative of the strong bond between the town and its library and park.
“It’s pretty amazing that something of this size is due to private funding,” she said.
Taylor said that certain people within the town have been especially helpful and close with her, including the town public works department and, of course, the park manager, Alan Peck.
“He’s just been wonderful to work with,” she said, explaining that many of the ideas for the park projects stemmed from Peck. “Basically Alan picks out things and then I ask for money to pay for them.”
One such idea was the memorial tree program, which lets community members honor a loved one with a tree in Wilcox Park. For a minimum $500 donation, a new tree is planted in the park, complete with a small copper tag with the name of the person being memorialized or honored and a listing in the Memorial Tree Album.
Taylor’s relationship with the town was not completely devoid of friction, however. Her work with the controversial Westerly-Pawcatuck Joint Task Force was met with criticism that culminated in her board asking her to resign from the task force in the spring of 2011.
With the controversy behind her now, Taylor is eagerly planning for post-retirement. Not ready to give up working yet, she has a job lined up as a staff consultant at Dynamic Solution Associates, a nonprofit consulting firm in Brookline, Mass. She said her goal is to help other libraries do annual appeal campaigns to increase funding. “So many don’t do it for a number of reasons,” she explained. “It may appear to be difficult, or they might be afraid to lose town funding for whatever reason.”
Taylor said she also plans to spend time with her daughter and grandson in Maryland.
Of course, the mountain lover in her is still alive and kicking too. Taylor is scheduled to climb Machu Picchu in Peru this November as well.
The library will hold a retirement reception honoring Taylor from 4 to 6 p.m. Wednesday before her official retirement on Friday.