DeKALB – From the staff desk in the boiler room to the strict time limits on the 12 computers, Dee Coover said she has squeezed the most out of every square inch of the DeKalb Public Library.
Coover, the library’s executive director, hopes to have a few more thousand square feet to work. She learned this week that the library qualifies for $8.5 million in state grants for expansion costs if her staff is able to produce a sufficient local fundraising plan by June 1.
Moments after listening to a voice mail inquiring about the fundraising efforts, Coover said she was confident the library board and staff would not let the opportunity slip away. The library, which hasn’t expanded in 40 years, was denied the same state grant this summer.
“We’re overjoyed,” she said. “We live with this everyday ... not being able to provide the services we want to.”
Knowing the grant is contingent on local fundraising, Coover said the library’s mission is to explain to residents and potential donors just how badly they need the proposed 48,000 square-foot expansion.
Many people believe libraries are headed toward extinction because of the shift to digital platforms, but the need for and use of libraries are at an all-time high, she said. Staff members help patrons learn technical skills, fill out important applications and set up email accounts at a much higher rate than before.
The library is also attracting more students who need the computer resources to write, research and edit papers for school. But with only a limited number of devices, Coover said the hour permitted for computer use is not enough time for many students to complete important work. The limit soon will increase to 90 minutes.
“We have 50 percent of our kids on free and reduced lunch and many of them may not have access to high-speed internet at home,” Coover said. “The digital divide in many ways has shown the division in economic realities more than anything else. We want to level the playing field.”
In addition to limited technology, the library also has no teen section and limited space for programming that creates a crowded and sometimes noisy atmosphere. The library is virtually inaccessible to those with physical disabilities.
“This building was built for a community of 8,000 people,” Coover said of the 1930s structure. “It simply cannot provide all the services it should.”
Clark Neher, library board president, said the board would immediately start discussing fundraising strategies and how to split the project into phases so the entire $20 million-plus project does not need to happen at one time.
Neher said the library would reach out to every possible resource, regardless of size. The library has already reached out to patrons, offering naming rights to sections of the Dewey decimal system in exchange for a financial donation.
“I’m very optimistic that we can indeed reach our share, even though we don’t yet know exactly how much that will require,” Neher said of the state’s local funding requirement for the grant. “We really have to work hard now to achieve the funding.”
Coover said she would meet with the architects today to discuss breaking the expansion into phases. State library officials will visit for a site inspection in January, Coover said.
The proposed expansion includes a three-story addition that would extend across Third Street, closing some of the road.