Around the County

Time to get serious about our library

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Kids. Thirty to 40 of them flood through the Powell library doors on any given school day after the last bell rings. Some of them have nowhere else to go until their folks get off work. Others may not want to go home. Still others come because it’s a good place to hang out with their friends.

The staff copes, providing games, crafts, reading programs and projects on two days of the week. Otherwise, the youngsters find their own activities wherever they can in the library’s limited space. The computer stations fill. Digital pads come out. Small bodies occupy seats at the tables. Others find places on the floor. Background music and the familiar dinging of video games fills the air. And, of course, there’s laughing, joking and just plain horsing around. Some kids even do their homework.

“For the most part, they’re great,” one of the librarians says in summing up the situation. Besides, every librarian knows that youngsters with positive library experiences tend to become adult library users … their lives the richer for it. Give kids space and they’ll profit from it — something we’ve found in the Cody library, which has a teen room with its own computers and study rooms staffed by a full-time teen librarian.

There, no matter how many pre-teens and teens throng the place, adult library users can read in peace, work at one of the tables, browse through the stacks, look up their genealogy on the state-paid-for Ancestry.com web site, or take advantage of that library’s other amenities.

Obviously, people don’t do any of these things in Powell during the after-school hours. Not after the first time, anyway.

Lack of space is nothing new for Powell. As long ago as 2003, the county librarian estimated that Powell then needed 17,499 square feet as opposed to the existing (still) 8,971 sq. ft.

Since the turn of the century and that needs assessment, Powell has grown almost 20 percent — as has library use and pressure on the existing library space.

But size isn’t the Powell library’s only problem. The building’s structural deficiencies, while not dangerous to library users, have concerned employees and volunteers for years. Because of them and the space issue, the Friends of the Powell Branch Library, the Park County Library Board, and the librarians themselves have been looking at options. And, looking, and looking, and looking … since 2008.

In 2008, when we (I was on the library board then) finished with the new Cody library, we had an engineering study done of the Powell building. The results led the board of commissioners to put the topic of a new Powell library on the table for consideration. Almost immediately, though, the recession of that fateful year took it off. No matter the need, the county could not afford another infrastructure project. Instead, we repaired cracks, upgraded control over a flooding issue which continues to persist, and gave the building a facelift with new paint and carpeting. It wasn’t what we wanted, it was a long way from what was needed, but it was what we could afford.

Now, on an annual budget of $24 to $26 million, the county has over $17 million in reserves. What does this mean? To put the amount in perspective, the rule of thumb is to hold reserves of between three months and six months of operating expenses. Using the six-month guideline of $12 to $13 million in reserves, the county this year could free up $4 to $5 million for infrastructure development. That won’t buy us a new library, but it would certainly take us a long way down that road.

And if we did go for an entirely new structure, what would we want? Towns our size with libraries of recent construction — take Lander as an example — have study spaces, a teen area, one or more small meeting rooms, a larger assembly room, a reading lounge, computer stations, a children’s library and activity room, an A/V location and work areas for the librarians.

And, for all of you who, like me, try to avoid spending public funds, I’d mention that good libraries are one of the first things that people look for when considering a move, using it as a guide to the values of a town.

Finally, nothing can be more relevant in the information age — in a time when we constantly need to learn new skills and explore new ideas — than a vibrant information and community center: our library.

A good library, to my way of thinking, is an investment in the future of our children, ourselves, and our town. Which is to say: I’m hoping we can get serious about this, to stop looking and start doing.

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