August 17, 2017

Community Vision | Library Design 2017

Montana’s Belgrade Community Library is perhaps best known to LJ readers as the 2015 Best Small Library in America. After receiving the award, Director Gale Bacon tells LJ, many in the community started asking what the library’s next step was. The 9,700 square foot building presented the six-person staff with “huge physical space challenges,” Bacon says—not only limiting the size of the collection and staff work space but having routinely to turn would-be attendees away from programs. So achieving this milestone seemed like the right time for reexamination.

Going back to school

A mutual friend introduced Bacon to Tom McNab, director of the Community Design Center (CDC) at Montana State University’s School of Architecture, Bozeman. The CDC has for decades given architecture students hands-on design experience by tackling local design projects at very reasonable cost. The Belgrade Community Library (BCL) applied for and was selected as one of the projects for the fall 2015 term. Its design was handled by eight fifth-year architecture and mechanical engineering students, for whom the library represented their first real client.

The city agreed to cover the “very reasonable cost.” The library convened a group of about 25 stakeholders including school principals, board members, residents, foundation members, city staff, library staff, and, of course, Bacon to define the library’s needs for the next 20 years. In tandem, students examined the existing structure, from wiring and lighting to the landscape and energy use.

The students presented three options: one, Bacon says, was still too basic and small. Another went to the opposite extreme, proposing a new site and new construction. Ultimately, the library chose the middle ground: a substantial expansion that would retain the original building and site in the municipal complex but include an addition that would more than double the space, to 20,000 square feet.

Starting the dialog

The library posted renderings (pictured) in the main circulation area so the “quite intrigued” public, according to Bacon, could see them and ask questions, and also to keep the goal literally in front of the staff.

Bacon says the designs are already worth the effort “even if the library doesn’t end up looking like that at all. What it is affording us,” she says, “is the opportunity to converse with the people who are interested in investing in the library’s future” and let them know “we’re really thinking this through.” It helps, she says, to be able to say, “here’s literally some of the vision we have,” instead of just trying to describe it.

The estimated price tag for the plan is about $6 million. Bacon hopes to raise the total, or close to it, without recourse to city funds for construction. The community, she says, has already backed two successful library levies in the past ten years and is “income challenged and taxed out.” Operating the larger library would require more staff and thus a larger operating budget; she hopes that by at least raising the construction funding elsewhere, “we can relieve the burden as much as possible, saying to taxpayers, ‘We know how much you’ve sacrificed to make that possible.’ ”

The library has already received a generous $400,000 donation from a local ranching family, which jump-started the newly formed capital campaign committee. The interest generated by that announcement brought another $7,000–$8,000 in gifts despite the foundation not having officially kicked off the campaign, much less set a time line. Things are moving forward nonetheless: the foundation recently contracted with an organization called Dotted i for grant writing, website improvement, and a one-page handout telling the library’s story to those who might want to help write the next chapter.

This article was published in Library Journal's May 15, 2017 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Meredith Schwartz About Meredith Schwartz

Meredith Schwartz (mschwartz@mediasourceinc.com) is Executive Editor of Library Journal.

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