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A new home for the Valley Library

Posted: June 28, 2012 - 12:00am

Perched atop the parking garage on the wharf, the downtown library is the most prominent of the city’s three branches, but as far as public usage, the Valley Library is king. Of the 74 percent of Juneau residents who have a public library card, 49 percent are registered in the Valley, according to figures released by the Friends of the Juneau Public Libraries. And of the 334,400 visits to Juneau’s three branches, more than half were Valley library visits.

For the past 30 years, Friends of the Juneau Public Libraries have been working toward the goal of moving the Valley facility to a home better suited to its purpose – and its users – namely, its own building. The library’s current location, in the Mendenhall Mall, was intended to be a temporary location, pending construction of a new facility in Dimond Park.

A new push for the building is now in progress: the project is one of a handful the Assembly will be considering for funding through the city’s 1 percent sales tax, which is expected to bring in more than $44 million over five years. Along with the library project, other projects seeking funding are a new performing arts center, upgrades to Aurora Harbor, and expansions at Eaglecrest Ski Area, among others.

The library group is seeking $4.7 million, 34 percent of the total cost of $14 million. Most of the money, 66 percent, has already been raised. Funding sources include a Juneau Public Library Endowment ($300,000), the city’s donation of the Dimond Park site ($1 million), a New Library Construction Grant approved by the state in May ($7 million), and The Friends of the Library donation ($1 million), raised through volunteer work at book sales and income from the Amazing Bookstore in the Airport Mall. The group has been active since the late 1970s.

“The (Friends of the Juneau Libraries) has been going all that time, working toward this goal,” Library Director Barbara Berg said.

Berg said though there will be an initial expense in building the new facility, the city will actually save money (about $30,00 a year) by not having to pay rent, Berg said. According to Friends of the Library figures submitted to the Assembly, rent for the mall location is costing the city about $200,000 a year; by 2014 it will have spent about $6.7 million on the space.

“I think there is a cost to building it up front, that’s true, but the city can either do that or the city can keep paying for something they’ll never own,” Berg said. “So I think its time has come, especially when we’ve got his fantastic grant from the state.”

One of the top problems with the mall facility is accessibility. Patrons can only come to the library when the mall is open, limiting hours and options for additional programming. The mall is also only partially accessible for wheelchair users, Berg said.

Another big problem is the layout of the space, which limits the library’s use of computers — a necessary feature for a modern library, Berg said. The children’s section is also cramped and out of the line of sight of the librarians’ desk. Lighting and maintenance are other problems.

In addition to its primary function as a library, all three branches also have meeting spaces the public can use, and are community centers, open to everyone. The Valley could use this type of public center, Berg said.

“The Valley, when you think about it, doesn’t really have any kind of civic space. There’s lots of commercial space, but there really isn’t any place that’s seen as the heart of that community.”

In the 1970s, the Valley library was a cooperative venture with the Floyd Dryden library, Berg said. Though it filled a need, the site was not ideal because of the limited access the community had to the facility – it was only open when school wasn’t in session. In the 1980s, the city purchased land on Dimond Park with the intent of the site being used for a new library, renting the mall site as an interim location.

Since that time, the issue has come up various times in different ways – including an idea to combine the library with the construction of Thunder Mountain High School or the new aquatic center. But so far no action has been taken.

The mall location has been updated over the years, but there is a limit to what can be done with it, Berg said.

“Really, the fact is that no matter what we do with it, it’s still a box in a mall.”

Since the Internet boom, all three of Juneau’s libraries have adjusted to changes in patron usage in various ways, including providing public computers and, at the downtown library, a new video conferencing system. The Valley Library could benefit from similar updates, Berg said.

Overall library patron visits took a dip immediately after Internet usage became widespread, Berg said, but the figures have rebounded.

According to the State of America’s Libraries Report 2012, public libraries in many major U.S. cities continue to see rises in circulation. Seattle tops the list, with a 50 percent increase in the past six years.

The Assembly will hear the list of potential 1 percent sales tax projects tonight, June 28, at 5:30 p.m. in Assembly chambers. To see the full list of projects, visit www.juneau.org/clerk/ASC/FC/2012/documents/ST_Projects.pdf

To find out more about the Valley Library Project, visit newvalleylibrary.blogspot.com/

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