LEBANON — Lianne Moccia walked up the stairs to the second floor of the Lebanon Library and paused.
“Whoa, whoa,” Moccia said as she looked around on Monday. “This is fantastic.”
Guests echoed Moccia’s comments all morning as they flocked to the Lebanon Library, which reopened to the public last week about a year after it closed for a major refurbishment.
“I find it so exciting,” said Moccia, who was a library manager for 17 years. “It feels like I’m in a whole new building.”
Renovation highlights include new meeting rooms, upgraded bathrooms and a central staircase that provides access to all three floors. Fresh pale blue paint coats the walls and sunlight pours in through new windows. A new heat pump system aims to reduce the library’s energy costs.
“We’re very excited,” said Library Director Sean Fleming. “We opened up a lot more of the building to the public.”
The Library of Lebanon is one of many throughout the Upper Valley that have undergone or attempted renovations in recent years with a view to accessibility.
That means bigger bathrooms, wider stairwells, new elevators, and more meeting space.
Liz Stoneman from Lebanon used to visit the library, which is located near Colburn Park downtown, three or four times a week before it closed.
“I like it,” Stoneman said. “I commend them for what they did.”
While walking through the library, she stopped Fleming to compliment him and the library staff for their continued service when the building was closed. Guests could request books and other materials to be picked up from a closet outside.
“We really had almost full resource,” Stoneman said.
Part of the charm of Upper Valley libraries is that many were built in the early 20th century.
Built in 1908, the Library of Lebanon is a Carnegie library, meaning that Gilded Age tycoon Andrew Carnegie contributed money to its construction.
But as charming as older buildings are, it can make their renovation a challenge, and one that’s more expensive.
“As librarians, we certainly all think about it, but depending on our situation and environment, the ability to implement those thoughts varies greatly across the region,” said Mindy Atwood, director of Abbott Library in Sunapee and secretary of the New Hampshire Library Association .
Some libraries, like Windsor Public Library, have chosen to scale back plans for major renovation projects and instead focus on smaller – but still meaningful – improvements. For Windsor, that meant raising money for an elevator to allow guests with limited mobility to access 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,” said library director Barbara Ball.
About four months ago, the administrators began looking for contractors to start the work. So far they haven’t had any luck. While some contractors have shown interest in the plans, most are fully booked.
“We have everything in order,” Ball said of the necessary permits. “No one had time to come out and check. I think it’s just the supply, the labor shortage that everyone else is experiencing.”
Supply chain problems and labor shortages also impacted the Lebanon library project, which cost $2.2 million, Fleming said. Of that, $325,000 came from donations and the rest from taxpayers.
The work was supposed to take four to six months, but delays stretched it to a year. Deliveries of furniture, including bookshelves, were delayed. Stone needed to extend the front step of the library entrance took longer to get in. And the labor shortage that affected projects throughout the Upper Valley also impacted the Lebanon Library renovation.
“The funding was there,” Fleming said. “It was only extended because of the supply chain issue.”
With all of that, the renovation project arrived $60,000 under budget. The remaining money will be used for smaller projects, such as sandblasting a brick wall in a basement meeting room to remove the paint and allow the exposed bricks to show through.
Before the renovation, the library’s three floors were disjointed. A new staircase in the middle of the building facilitates access to each floor and connects spaces that weren’t there before.
“That made a lot of things possible,” Fleming said, pointing to the stairs.
Stairs were also a priority for the Royalton Library Board of Trustees when planning the nearly century-old library’s renovation project, which was completed two years ago, just before the pandemic hit.
A steep flight of stairs had led to the library’s entrance, making it inaccessible to some visitors.
“Anyone with mobility (challenges), the front entrance was so steep that people called us on their cell phones, they sat outside and said, ‘Can you find me a book by this and that author?’ and we’d have to take 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 — involved installing an elevator. Levasseur stressed that the lift doesn’t just help people who use wheelchairs, walkers or other mobility devices. Parents with young children in strollers now have an easier time getting around.
“It was really a great enrichment,” said Levasseur. “I can’t stress enough how this has really opened up the library to so many people who couldn’t even get into the building before.”
There are also two bathrooms – one on each floor. Each includes a changing table.
“Before we got parents to sneak into the corner and change the baby on the floor,” Levasseur said. “We just didn’t have the space”
By their very nature, libraries are meant for everyone. There are no costs for city dwellers to borrow books or other materials. Community groups can reserve spots, students can use them to study, and anyone who needs internet access can find it (even in parking lots, as was the case in the early days of the pandemic when librarians made sure WiFi signals spread outside of buildings). Even when spaces were physically closed, people could request books for curbside pickup, children’s librarians put together take-home craft kits for children, and staff members were available by phone or email to assist customers with accessing digital services such as email. books to help.
“All librarians are concerned about equal access. It is our ethos and we understand that physical access to the collection is certainly tied into the concept of equal access,” said Atwood. “It’s just a difference in ability to do something about it, mainly financially.”
It’s hard to find people who deny the value of libraries. What can be more difficult is finding funding for projects. It took Royalton Library trustees at least a decade to raise about $500,000, Levasseur said, in addition to working with city officials to limit the scope of the renovation, which was initially estimated at over $1 million.
“The biggest challenge was working with the Selectboard, and I think that’s common for libraries when they take on a project this big,” Levasseur said.
Added to this is the upgrading of older buildings while retaining the historical features that make them special. Because of its historical character, the Royalton Library received grants for the renovation project. But these grants came with some limitations, such as: B. Retaining the original windows and interior doors.
“A lot of that fell on our architect because he had to design within those constraints,” Levasseur said.
The Grafton Selectboard and the Friends of Grafton Library have debated for years how to proceed with the city’s current, centuries-old building.
There has been talk of using the bones from a historic barn to build a new library, said library director Katelyn Coolley. There has also been talk of trying to renovate the current 100-year-old structure, which has no running water. In 2016, a Grafton resident donated land for the library, and there was talk of moving and renovating the current library onto the land.
The conversation continues as the trustees work on the library’s strategic plan and discuss next steps.
“It’s really about making sure the trustees and the selectmen are all on the same page about what Grafton needs and what we can offer,” Coolley said. “We’re looking at the needs of our city and what’s the best way to address them.”
While there is a ramp for guests to use, the library still lacks bathroom facilities. There is an outdoor port-a-potty for guest use, and inside is a cartridge toilet.
“It was more of a temporary measure to meet 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 although improvements had made it more accessible it did not quite meet the requirements. For example, the old building had a ramp but no automatic doors, Atwood said. The new building is on one floor 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 to people who need housing that we couldn’t get in the old building,” Atwood said. “I can certainly say from my personal involvement in the project that accessibility was a focus.”
Both Atwood and Levasseur said the renovations brought in new customers. The Royalton Library had only been open for just over a month when the COVID-19 pandemic forced its doors again. People were still calling, asking for library cards so they could pick up curbside or use online resources. Now it’s open again.
“Once we’ve been able to open the doors to the public, we’re likely to see a new person almost every day or two,” Levasseur said.
Back in Lebanon, employees are still amazed at all the changes that have been made.
One of Fleming’s most popular new features is the second-story balcony that overlooks the ground floor. Previously, the area had shelves that blocked the view – and sunlight – from below. Now open, it offers space for a look at the library’s historical book collection, which is particularly useful for regular patrons doing genealogy research.
“Now the resources are accessible,” Fleming said. “I had a vision for this space and it worked out well, which I’m glad about. I hope other people like it as much as I do.”
Liz Sauchelli can be reached at [email protected] or 603-727-3221.