Libraries Face Gap Between Aging Buildings and Modern Programs

The children's section of the Clarks Public Library (Photo by Allison Mollenkamp, NET News)
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December 5, 2018 - 6:45am

This summer a columnist for Forbes suggested Amazon take over public libraries to save money. The piece was met with outrage. So there’s still a lot of love for libraries. But aging buildings and low funding present challenges, especially for small-town librarians. 


“This is our beautiful staircase. Everybody loves it. They really want this to stay in the expansion,” said Tina Walker. She’s director of the Keene Memorial Library in Fremont.

The staircase at the Keene Memorial Library in Fremont (Photo by Allison Mollenkamp, NET News)

“You can no longer have stairs that are small on one side and large on another and you can’t have carpet on a stairwell. So, and these railings are not up to code. So there’s nothing about this stair that is to code. So it has to go,” Walker said.

Like many other libraries across the state, Fremont faces a disconnect between the physical space of their library building, and the purpose the library serves in the community.

“We have run out of room. Our shelves are full, we have no place for programming, services, events. Our only meeting space that we have, you can actually get 35 to 40 people in there. We had 131 people show up last year at Christmas. We had 350 for Halloween. We just don’t have room,” Walker said.

The current Fremont library replaced an older building when Hazel Keene donated money for a new library in 1969. But, as Walker mentioned, it’s not “up to code.”

Tina Walker poses with plans for the Keene library expansion (Photo by Allison Mollenkamp, NET News)

To be more specific, a lot of things about the current Fremont library are not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The act sets a wide variety of requirements for public buildings. Doorways need to be a certain width. Bathroom stalls have to be a certain size. For a two-story library like the one in Fremont, it means their current elevator isn’t up to standards.

“Did you ride up in the elevator? It’s like a cracker-jack box. You can’t get a wheelchair on the elevator, and if you’re using crutches, you have to turn side-ways and hobble into the elevator. So it’s very complicated,” Walker said.

Earlier this year Fremont voters passed a two million dollar bond issue to help fund renovations and expansion of their library. The total cost will be ten to twelve million dollars, so Walker and her staff are working to raise the rest through grants and private donations.

“We will basically become fully into code for everything in the building. And ADA compliance, which is huge.  This is 2018. We probably should do that,” Walker said.

In 2018, ADA compliance is a legal expectation. However, some older libraries haven’t been renovated since the law passed in 1990, so they’re not wheelchair accessible.

For instance, the building in Clarks is a hundred years old. It’s a Carnegie library, one of thousands across the country built with donations from steel-magnate and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.

Barbee Sweet (Photo by Allison Mollenkamp, NET News)

Barbee Sweet is director of the Clarks Public Library. She tells people who don’t have the needed access to the building to call her and she’ll bring the books to them.

“They can give me either a specific book that they would like, and I can find that for them, or they can give me just like a broader topic like, ‘I want some mystery books,’ and then I can either take them to their house or I can meet them curbside,” Sweet said.

This solution is helpful in getting everyone in a community access to materials. However, it misses part of what makes up the work of a library.

Libraries are a prime example of what’s called a “third space.” A place that’s not home or work, but a space where people can gather. Libraries are a place for community as much as they are for checking out books.

Joy Stevenson is the director of the Crete Public Library. She says a sales tax increase is partly funding a new library in Crete that will have several different spaces for different groups.

Joy Stevenson poses with plans for the new Crete Public Library building (Photo by Allison Mollenkamp, NET News)

“We in the library don’t believe in shushing, contrary to myths. But that being said, this area should be a little bit noisier on the children’s part. The teens will have their own room, finally, which is really needed here. Talking to a lot of teens, they just, they don’t have a lot of things to do around here,” Stevenson said.

Teens are one group that benefits from the “third space” provided by the library. Another is people who speak a language other than English. In Crete, that often means Spanish speakers.

“Crete is kind of unique in that we are a welcoming community. And because of that, I mean when I first started here a year and a half ago, I threw a lot of money in the Spanish collection. And we always make sure, well I have one full-time and one part-time Spanish speaker,” Stevenson said.

Crete Public Library (Photo by Allison Mollenkamp, NET News)

In Clarks, Sweet says the library serves yet another purpose.

“I am not your typical library. It’s more of an after-school program. Once school gets out, it will be filled with kids. And you know, it’s just a good way that the kids are safe because so many parents have to work, you know, in a different town, and kids are home alone by themselves,” Sweet said.

Access to computers and books, as well as a safe place for kids and teens, can help a community.

Clarks Public Library (Photo by Allison Mollenkamp, NET News)

Tina Walker, the library director in Fremont, says the library is just as important as fire and police departments.

“I was a correctional officer for nine years, so I saw the other side of it, where everybody commits all their crimes and then you try to rehabilitate them and bring them back. And if you look at the library in the opposite direction, we’re here to provide people with the ability to apply for jobs, get assistance, disability, things that help them earn an income so that they don’t have to go commit crimes and then they don’t wind up in the police department and then the prison system,” Walker said.

Fremont’s work will get a little easier in the next few years as they expand into a space that’s tailored to their needs. Crete’s will too, with their brand new library.

But what about Clarks? The city is not alone in trying to get by in a library that’s hard to cool in the summer and hard to heat in the winter, has no elevator, and where books have to be weeded out just to keep the shelves from overflowing.

Just under 9 percent of Nebraska libraries aren’t ADA compliant. Even so, the librarians I spoke with have grand dreams for their libraries. Small towns, and even their larger neighbors, continue to grapple with how to make a library building fit its purpose.

The Keene Memorial Library in Fremont (Photo by Allison Mollenkamp, NET News)

Tina Walker summed up her vision for the Fremont library as more than the space it fills.

“We’re kind of rebranding the library as the community hub and trying to explain to people that we do a lot more than just check out books to people. So we’re trying to advertise our services and programs, what we do for the community and why we’re important, so, it’s not just about the space of the building, but it’s about what we’re doing in the building,” Walker said.

Fremont plans to break ground on their library expansion in 2020, and the new Crete library is expected to open next year.

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