Webber Library will remain closed

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The fall issue of the Friends of the Hennepin County Library highlighted the importance of putting books into the hands of students from low-income households. They cited a study published in the Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk, which showed that low-income students who had access to books during the summer did not experience the proverbial “summer slide.” Indeed, their reading scores were raised by 24.15 points, while their peers who did not have access to books experienced a -9.77 point slide in their scores. Counter this data with the responsibility we have as a society to address the appalling achievement gap in education and the knowledge that many of the children in our own community live in poverty, and the value of having our public libraries open for all people, especially the children of our community becomes paramount.

Webber Park Library remains closed as of this writing. The structural damage has not been repaired and three possible outcomes were presented at a public meeting held by Hennepin County Commissioner Linda Higgins at Folwell Park on September 30. Options included repairing the existing structure, utilizing trailers to provide interim library services or rent retail space within proximity of the current library. Trudy Richter of Richardson, Richter and Associates facilitated the meeting, setting an agenda that would provide an update on the findings from the structural engineers, options for interim library service, and a time for questions and comments from the community. In her opening remarks Higgins commented on the value of libraries and spoke about the rich 100+ year history of Webber Park Library. Speaking to a full house, Higgins said she is committed to providing library services in the Webber community in the short term, while working on a long-term solution to the Webber Park Library building conundrum. Her sentiment was supported by Lois Lenroot-Ernt and Bill Rodgers, of Hennepin County Library Services.

Chris Sagsveen, assistant director of Hennepin County property services, gave the structural update on the library. Besides the cracks that were discovered in the walls after tiles fell from the ceiling in July, soil boring indicated that the west end of the building rests on poorly compacted soil. In addition to structural repairs to the foundation and walls of the library, the subgrade would need to be addressed. Total repairs are estimated to cost $325,000, to bring the library to pre-July 2013 conditions, and the earliest possible reopening of the library would be in the fall of 2014.

The question and answer period of the meeting revealed a community that passionately cares about the future of Webber Park Library. Many comments were made about the need for computers for students and job hunters, in addition to the recognition that the library serves as a safe community gathering place. Gary Anderson, Friend of Webber Park Library (FWL), shared an anecdotal story about an 8-year-old neighborhood boy that he regularly mentored while volunteering at the library, revealing a reality about many young children in the neighborhood whose access to books and homework help resides in the library being open. Catherine Furnberg, FWL, expressed her strong desire to address the literacy needs of the children in the community, emphasizing the need for a quiet programming space to fulfill the Friends commitment to an endowed gift. Kathleen Butts, Victory resident and Associate Executive Director of PCYC Alternative school stressed, “Don’t have it closed any longer than possible. Access to computers, includes right to access for public school information,” noting that Minneapolis Public Schools communicate much of their information to students and parents through the parent portal and other computer networks. FWL President Mary Martinson said that everything about the library is important to our community; the programming, the access to books, the computers, the mentors, “There isn’t anything we don’t need,” she said “the faster” this is resolved “the better.”

State Representative Joe Mullery reminded the community and the County that in the tax committee, which provided for the merger of the Minneapolis and Hennepin County library systems, Hennepin County committed to keeping the library open. He also asked a pertinent question regarding the Twins baseball tax dollars for libraries. Recently Hennepin County allotted an additional 249 library hours for 41 libraries, but Webber Park did not receive additional hours.

Anne Pfieffer, long time Webber Park advocate, asked about using the Kowalski building during the interim, since the County already owns the building. Chris Sagsveen, of property services, remarked that it would be too costly to remodel the space into a usable library facility. Regarding the criteria for choosing a suitable interim solution, Bill Rodgers said that cost, availability and community input were all important considerations. When asked if repairing the current library would put the new Webber Park Library capital project further away, Higgins said, “You can’t spend a dollar more than once. So yes, fewer dollars would be available in the short term. Thinking about a temporary spot would get us there faster.” By the end of the meeting it became clear that Hennepin County would not support spending $325,000 to repair the building to the “substandard status” of the library before its closing, with Higgins stating, “We are not going to fix the old library – it would be wasted resources.” With “the elephant in the room” clearly revealed, dialogue turned to getting the library’s capital building project back on track. Higgins committed to providing good interim services, with a space that is in proximity to the current library and her most recent newsletter stated that she “believes the building should not be repaired and that the focus should move to temporary library space and planning for a new library that would meet the needs of the neighborhood.” The County has identified a potential site, and is investigating whether the space is available, appropriate and affordable as a temporary space. For updates from Higgins visit hclib.org/webberpark, hennepin.us/higgins or call Tina Sanz at 612-348-7882.

In the meantime, the Friends of Webber Park Library are sponsoring a number of events at the Webber Park community building, including an author talk with local writer Lorna Landvik on Saturday, November 9 from 2-4 p.m. Visit hclib.org/pub/events/AllEventsAction.cfm for programs.