Supply chain, funding challenges complicate Upper Valley library renovations

  • Francine Lozeau, a retired teacher who works at the Lebanon Library on Mondays, looks for a book in the children’s section. Alex Driehas / Valley News

  • Staff member Lauren Whittlesey uses a new staircase from the top floor to the basement.

  • Library staff members Rosie Johnson, left, Lauren Whittlesey, right, work behind the desk at the Lebanon Library last week. After a year of renovations that were prolonged by supply chain issues, the library held a soft opening on Monday. Valley News / Report For America — Alex Driehaus

  • An elevator, which was installed as part of a major renovation that was completed in February 2020, makes the top floor accessible to patrons with disabilities at Royalton Memorial Library in South Royalton on Friday. Valley News / Report For America — Alex Driehaus

  • Lydia Samson, library assistant and student at Vermont Law School, rearranges books in the children’s section at Royalton Memorial Library in South Royalton, Vt., on Friday, Jan. 28, 2022. The children’s area was moved from the upper level to the lower level and is now decorated with a tree mural painted by Stuart Levasseur. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Alex Driehaus

  • Homer Adams, of Lebanon, N.H., works on a word jumble at the Lebanon Library in Lebanon, N.H., on Friday, Jan. 28, 2022. Adams visits Kilton Library “several times a week,” usually after a trip to his bank or to the Veterans Affairs center, and says that he is happy that the Lebanon branch has reopened because it is a shorter trip from his house. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Alex Driehaus

Valley News
Published: 1/31/2022 2:50:26 PM
Modified: 1/31/2022 2:48:57 PM

LEBANON — Lianne Moccia walked up the staircase to the second floor of the Lebanon Library and paused.

“Whoa, whoa,” Moccia said as she looked around Monday. “This is fantastic.”

Patrons echoed Moccia’s comments all morning as they filtered into the Lebanon Library, which reopened to the public last week about a year after it closed for an extensive renovation .

“I think it’s so exciting,” said Moccia, who was a library trustee for 17 years. “It feels like I’m in a whole new building.”

Among the renovation highlights are new meeting rooms, improved bathrooms and a central staircase that can be used to access all three floors. Fresh coats of light blue paint cover the walls, and sunlight streams through new windows. A new heat pump system should cut down on the library’s energy costs.

“We’re very excited,” said library director Sean Fleming. “We made a lot more of the building accessible to the public.”

The Lebanon Library is one of many throughout the Upper Valley that has undertaken renovations — or attempted to — in recent years with an eye toward accessibility.

That means larger bathrooms, wider staircases, new elevators and more meeting space.

Liz Stoneman, of Lebanon, used to stop by the library, which is located off Colburn Park downtown, three or four times a week before it closed.

“I like it,” Stoneman said. “I commend them for what they’ve done.”

While walking through the library, she stopped Fleming to compliment him and the library’s staff on their continued service when the building was closed. Patrons could request books and other materials, which they could pick up from a cabinet outside.

“We really had almost the full resource,” Stoneman said.

History, books

Part of the charm of Upper Valley libraries is that many were built in the early 20th century.

The Lebanon Library was built in 1908 and is a Carnegie Library, meaning Gilded Age tycoon Andrew Carnegie contributed money for its construction.

But as charming as older buildings are, it can make renovating them a challenge, and one that’s more expensive at that.

“As librarians, certainly we all think about it, but based on our situation and environment, the ability to execute on those thoughts is very different throughout the region,” said Mindy Atwood, director of Sunapee’s Abbott Library and secretary of the New Hampshire Library Association.

Some libraries, like the Windsor Public Library, have chosen to scale back plans for larger renovation projects and instead focused on making smaller — yet still meaningful — improvements. For Windsor, that meant raising money for a lift so that patrons with limited mobility can get to the basement, renovating the bathroom and replacing a narrow staircase.

In a year and a half, the board of trustees raised $83,000 from grants and private donations.

“It’s what we can afford, what our community can afford,” library director Barbara Ball said.

Around four months ago, administrators started to look for contractors to start the work. So far, they haven’t had any luck. While some contractors have shown interest in the blueprints, most are booked up.

“We have everything in order,” Ball said of the necessary permits. “Nobody has had the time to come out and look. I guess it’s just the supply, the worker shortages like everyone else is experiencing.”

Supply chain issues and worker shortages also impacted the Lebanon Library project, which cost $2.2 million, Fleming said. Of that, $325,000 came from donations, the rest from taxpayers.

Work was supposed to take four to six months, but delays pushed that to a year. Furniture deliveries, including bookshelves, were delayed. Stone that was needed to extend the front step of the library’s entrance took longer to come in. And labor shortages that have hit projects across the Upper Valley also impacted the Lebanon Library renovation.

“The funding was there,” Fleming said. “It was just drawn out because of the supply chain issue.”

With all that, the renovation project came in at $60,000 under budget. The leftover money is being used for smaller projects, such as sandblasting a brick wall in a basement meeting room to clear the paint and letting the exposed brick shine through.

Prior to the renovation, the library’s three floors were disjointed. A new staircase in the center of the building makes it easier to access each floor and connects spaces that weren’t there before.

“This is what made a lot of things possible,” Fleming said, pointing to the staircase.

Critical changes

Stairs were also a priority of the Royalton Library’s board of trustees when planning the nearly century-old library’s renovation project that was completed two years ago, just prior to the onset of the pandemic.

A steep set of stairs had led to the library’s entrance, which made it inaccessible for some patrons.

“Anyone with mobility (challenges), the front entrance was so steep people would call us from their cellphone, they’d be sitting out front and they’d say, ‘Can you find me a book by such and such author?’ and we’d have to run it down the stairs to them,” said assistant director Pam Levasseur. “They were really left out of the opportunity to come in.”

Part of the $750,000 project — more than half of which was funded by private donations and grants — included adding an elevator. Levasseur emphasized that the elevator doesn’t just help people who use wheelchairs, walkers or other mobility devices. Parents who have young children in strollers now have an easier time of getting around.

“That has really been a great asset,” Levasseur said. “I can’t stress enough how that has really opened up the library to so many people who couldn’t even get in the building before.”

There are also two bathrooms — one on each floor. Each includes a changing table.

“Before we got parents sneaking off to the corner and changing the baby on the floor,” Levasseur said. “We just didn’t have any space.”

Funding challenges

Libraries, by their nature, are meant to be for everyone. For town residents, there is no cost for borrowing books or other materials. Community groups can reserve spaces, students can use it to study and anyone who needs internet access can find it (even in parking lots, as was the case during the early days of the pandemic when librarians made sure wifi signals stretched outside buildings). Even when the spaces were physically closed, people could request books for curbside pickup, children’s librarians put together to-go craft kits for kids, and staffers were available by phone or email to help patrons access digital services like ebooks.

“All librarians are concerned with equal access. That’s our professional ethos, and we understand that physical access to the collection is certainly folded into the concept of equal access,” Atwood said. “It’s just a difference of the capacity to do something about it, mostly financial.”

It is hard to find people who deny the value of libraries. What can be harder is drumming up funding for projects. It took the Royalton Library trustees at least a decade to raise around $500,000, Levasseur said, in addition to working with town officials to limit the scope of the renovation, which was originally estimated to cost over $1 million.

“The biggest challenge was working with the Selectboard, and I think that’s common for libraries when they’re taking on such a big project,” Levasseur said.

Added to that is upgrading older buildings while still preserving the historic features that make them special. Due to its historic nature, the Royalton Library received grants toward the renovation project. But those grants came with some caveats, such as keeping the original windows and inside doors.

“A lot of that fell on our architect because he needed to design within those restrictions,” Levasseur said.

The Grafton Selectboard and the Friends of Grafton Library have spent years discussing how to proceed with the current century-old building in town.

There has been talk of using the bones of a historic barn to build a new library, library director Katelyn Coolley said. There has also been talk of trying to renovate the current 100-year-old structure, which does not have running water. In 2016, a Grafton resident donated land for the library, and there was talk of moving the current library to the land and renovating it there.

The talk continues as the trustees work on the library’s strategic plan and discuss the next steps.

“It’s really about making sure that the trustees and the Selectmen are all on the same page of what Grafton needs and what we can offer,” Coolley said. “We’re looking at the needs of our town and what’s the best method to address that.”

While there is a ramp for patrons to use, the library still lacks plumbing. There’s an outdoor port-a-potty for patrons, and inside there is a cartridge toilet.

“It was more of at temporary measure to meet handicap accessibility regulations,” Coolley said.

In Sunapee, officials decided to build a new library, which opened in 2014. The previous library was built in 1926, and while improvements had made it more accessible, it wasn’t quite up to par. For example, the old building had a ramp but did not have automatic doors, Atwood said. The new building is on a single level, and the bathrooms are larger.

“I think while we were (Americans with Disabilities Act)-compliant in the old building there’s an independence we can offer people who need some accommodation that we weren’t able to at the old building,” Atwood said. “Certainly I can say very comfortably from being personally involved in the project that accessibility was a focus.”

Renovation benefits

Both Atwood and Levasseur said the renovations brought in new patrons. The Royalton Library had reopened for only a little over a month when the COVID-19 pandemic forced its doors closed once again. People still called asking for library cards so they could do curbside pickup or use online resources. Now, it is open once again.

“Once we were able to open the doors to the public, we probably see a new person almost every day or every other day,” Levasseur said.

Back in Lebanon, the staff still marvels at all the changes that have been made.

One of Fleming’s favorite new features is the second-floor balcony that overlooks the ground floor. Previously, the area had shelves blocking the view — and the sunlight — from below. Now, it is open, with space to view to library’s historic book collection, particularly useful to patrons doing genealogical research.

“Now the resources are accessible,” Fleming said. “I had a vision for this space and it worked well, which I’m glad about. I hope other people like it was much as I do.”

Liz Sauchelli can be reached at esauchelli@vnews.com or 603-727-3221.


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