In August 2012, Uintah County, Utah opened a new 32,000 square foot replacement library.
The original 9,000 square foot facility built in the 1950s, added onto in the 70’s and again in the 90’s, was bursting at the seams with collections (130,000 items) and visitors (gate count of nearly 500,000). Despite the challenge of an inadequate facility we had always been a very successful library in programming, events, and training offered to the public. We also had lot of friends in our community.
Our staff members had never let our inadequate space limit our efforts. We held activities outside in an adjacent park. We held activities in partnership with other entities such as the recreation district and the local health district. We did a “books on the go” program that delivered books to meals-on-wheels clients—with no added cost to the library. We had a thriving Regional History Center housing many thousands of historical documents, photographs, and books which rivaled special collections at many of Utah’s universities–all crammed into 500 square feet.
Turning the Page
Call it serendipity or destiny that the Gates Foundation and the Public Library Association sponsored the Turning the Page advocacy training in nearby Salt Lake. On that same day, in the same hotel, there was an oil and gas convention that Uintah County Commissioners were attending. I greeted the surprised Commissioner Darlene Burns, who had oversight of the library, and explained why I was there. She was interested in libraries and wanted to sit in to hear Kevin Carroll speak about the Lessons of the Red Rubber Ball. Just then state librarian Donna Morris informed me she had just lost her “elected official” lunchtime speaker. I introduced Commissioner Burns to the State Librarian.
Half an hour later, Commissioner Burns spoke about how elected officials value libraries and how library priorities are weighted against other entities. She mentioned how she appreciates when the library can offer solutions to broader issues and problems. She then publicly announced in front of the crowd of librarians that Uintah County would shortly build a new building! Had it not been for the support of PLA and the Gates Foundation, in their role of facilitating discussion, I can only speculate about how far down the road a new library would still be.
Funding a New Library
Uintah County, Utah, is an oil and natural gas producing county. Over 70% of the land in the county is federally owned. A portion of the revenue the government receives from leasing and drilling fees is deposited with a state board who is charged with funding projects in communities that are impacted by oil and gas development. Impacted, like when 4,000 workers suddenly show up and all want housing and services at the same time. The board had recently funded a portion of the county’s new jail, a children’s justice center, and a recreation center. They however were dead set against funding libraries.
The Community Resource Center
Knowing the Permanent Community Impact Fund Board’s aversion to funding libraries, our team looked at the individual components of what the library does and stripped away library terminology. This we replaced with generic descriptive terminology. Storytime became the “Early Childhood Resource Program.” The computers were “public informational resources.” Our collection of health books were the “Health Information Resource Center.” Our “Parenting with Love and Logic “classes got to keep their name…. After coming up with the list of services and other resources, we settled on the umbrella of “Community Resource Center.” We took the new name and shared it with elected officials and other influential individuals and groups with whom we already had existing good relationships. Then the library approached the board asking for a combination of grant and low interest loan funding to build a new community resource center. After the longest and most memorable morning of my career, the board accepted our proposal and issued a $5 million dollar grant and a $3 million dollar low interest loan. Our team left the meeting and I’m pretty sure the whole hotel could hear our celebration!
The design and building process
I’ve worn glasses as long as I can remember. Each time I go to the eye doctor, he says “which one is better, one or two, a -or –b…” until the perfect lens is found. To me working with architects and design is much like this process. We started with a list of words that are now etched in the block on the exterior of our new building. These words became an adjacency plan, then architectural drawings, and then they seemingly magically transformed into a growing structure , and a completed building.
We are so pleased with our new library. We’ve nearly doubled our daily traffic counts. We’ve added 5,000 new patrons bringing the total to 31,833. We didn’t add a lot of new materials or grow the collection to a large extent. We added more computers. For us the new building is about having people space, a community living room, study rooms, adequate office space. We use RFID sorting and self-check machines which allow us to spread out our employees into the public spaces more.
Just this week we had a “glitz and glamor” day for all of the little princesses in the area. We had close to 500 people show up. Each of our activities draws close to that number. We have organizational growing pains now. We need to add a bit more hierarchy and grow the organization’s structure. We need to spend more time planning out logistics. We thought that 80 parking stalls and room for 150 people in the library’s main meeting room would be plenty. The truth is that in our community, any room we could have built would be too small at some point.
As library director, I also have responsibility for the Regional History Center. In the process of moving, we were able to remodel a portion of an existing county facility and now have a 4,000 square foot history center with proper archival storage, processing lab, and public research spaces. Just a few weeks ago the county’s administration placed the museum within the library department. Currently our team is designing the museum to fit in the old library.
My message to other librarians is that you can do it! You can be a problem solver. Each time you bring up an issue with your board or manager, also propose a solution. Try new things. Fail forward. Invite yourself to meetings of civic clubs such as Rotary, Elks, and Lions clubs. Dive into the Project Compass resources for supporting local workforce development. Attend open governmental meetings occasionally. Bring new ideas. Convene people. Be a political matchmaker. Don’t be afraid. If all of the focus seems to be on some other non-library issue, figure out how you can help. Get to that table. Call on resources around you. Cities, counties, and state agencies may be able to help. If you want help, be prepared to offer your help. Don’t assume; Ask. If you know what to do and no one asks you, speak up.
You can make great things happen in your communities! Make your readers feel special. Over-deliver on your services. Have fun!
Sam Passey, Director
Uintah County Library System