Blast-damaged Morristown & Township library to reopen with a new director

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When the Morristown & Township Library, closed since an explosion last May, partially reopens on Thursday, a new director will be greeting patrons.

Maria Norton, who became interim director in the aftermath of the blast, has been promoted to director by the library trustees.

“I’m feeling really good about it, and very confident about it,” said Maria, a Morristown native who started at the library in 1969 as a page while she was a freshman at the now defunct Bayley-Ellard High School in Madison.

“We could not be more pleased with the job she has done over this last year,” said Nancy Bangiola, president of the library trustees. “If there were any pieces of luck in all this, it was that Maria was ready and available” to replace “a gem,” longtime director Susan Gulick, who retired two months after the explosion.

Nancy described Maria as “incredibly capable and calm in moving this [rebuilding] project forward in the most pleasant, delightful way. We were truly blessed to have her, and we know it.”

Morris Township Mayor H. Scott Rosenbush came to appreciate Maria’s management skills and attention to detail during a stint on the library board years ago. The explosion aftermath “would have tested anyone’s competence and fortitude,” he said, adding he is thrilled by her promotion. “I think she’ll do a fantastic job.”

maria norton
Maria Norton, new director of the Morristown & Township library, shown here shortly after the May 3 explosion that closed the library for months. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Maria saw smoke wafting from a manhole cover and gave the order to evacuate the library as she was pulling up to the driveway on May 3 shortly before the library’s 9 am opening.

Inside, head reference librarian Polly Lacey already was rounding up staff to get out. They had noticed lights dimming and computers acting strangely. A spate of exploding manhole covers and a library blast in 1994 had taught everyone to be alert.

“You can never underestimate the power of a fire drill and an evacuation plan, which we have re-written again,” Maria said.

Maria’s first order of business as the full-fledged director will be shoehorning a full complement of library services into about one-third 60 percent of the pre-explosion space.

Morristown officials on Tuesday gave temporary approval to reopen the undamaged 2006 wing of the library. Patrons will be welcomed back at 1 pm on Thursday.

The director  hopes the badly damaged 1917 wing and the central 1933 wing will reopen by late spring or early summer.  Ground zero for the explosion–the basement floor in the 1917 wing– has been excavated and installation of new steel flooring should be completed next week, she said.

Then, interior wiring can be restored so that generators can be switched off. The cause of the May explosion remains under investigation.

Repairs so far have cost the library’s insurance company about $2 million, said Maria, who suspects the total cost may hit $4- or $5 million.

On Thursday, library patrons can expect to find the reference, circulation, geneaology, media and children’s departments up and running. Book drops will be open once again–closing an amnesty period for overdue books.

A new website should be coming later this month. But for awhile there will be fewer computers, no computer classes and public meeting rooms won’t be available, Maria said.

“We’re ready to go,” she insisted. “It will be great to be back in there.”

A temporary satellite office on South Street will remain open for administrative offices. Maria thanked owner Jim Mongey, of the Dublin Pub, for offering the space. She also expressed gratitude to St. Peter’s Episcopal Church for volunteering space for children’s programs last summer.

“God bless them. Talk about welcoming. They were wonderful,” said Maria, 57.

The Chester resident has degrees from Kean and Rutgers universities. She also learned plenty from her predecessor, Susan “Boom Boom” Gulick.

Susan got the nickname because the library exploded as she assumed the directorship in 1994 and it blew up again as she approached retirement.

“Susan was a wonderful, wonderful director and a wonderful mentor to me,” Maria said. “Despite the explosion, she handed off the library in good shape.”

Library patrons have been especially supportive, despite frustrations over the long closure, Maria said. She is looking forward to welcoming them back.

“We missed everybody,” she said.

MORE LIBRARY COVERAGE

Video of Maria Norton describing library evacuation shortly after May explosion:

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