Guest columnist Kate Cell: Shutesbury, our library can have a new home

  • The M.N. Spear Memorial Library in Shutesbury center. File photo

Thursday, April 14, 2022

The trustees of Shutesbury’s M.N. Spear Memorial Library are proud to announce that the town of Shutesbury has been selected to receive the inaugural Small Library Pilot Project grant from the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners (MBLC). Trustees anticipate this grant will pay between 60-65% of the estimated costs of a new building.

Shutesbury’s library needs a new home. We’ve outgrown our building. We make full use of our library services. We’ve earned a grant for our library, and we’ve saved up for it for a decade. Now, we need to do our best to make sure the town can afford and support the new building.

Shutesbury’s current library was built in 1902 and is only 945 gross square feet. It has no running water, and our composting toilet has had to be closed because of the pandemic. There is no place to sit and read, no room for quiet study, and no children’s or teens’ room. The staff have no work or office space, and many of our library’s materials are stored in our director’s garage and dining room. The tight aisle space makes it impossible for people using walkers or wheelchairs to navigate. Our town of library lovers has outgrown the building.

Two-thirds of Shutesbury residents have library cards, and we have one of the highest circulation rates in the commonwealth for libraries of our size. Even during the pandemic, the library hosts seven to 10 programs a week: seed-starting and permaculture seminars, exercise classes, book clubs, knitting lessons, and on and on. Most of the library’s programs must be held off-site because there’s not enough room in the building. We make full use of our library services.

Every year for the past nine years, Town Meeting has set aside $25,000 for our new library fund. The Friends of the Library have held community dinners, bake sales and “Spring Spruce-ups” where volunteers clean up their neighbors’ yards in return for donations. Last week’s Library Giving Day was April 6, the day before the grant was announced, and the Friends raised $37,000: that’s more than $20 for every resident of Shutesbury, in just one day. Between the town funds and the funds held by the Friends, Shutesbury has saved more than $595,000.

Two towns, Shutesbury and Otis, applied for the Small Library Pilot Project, and the MBLC provided a cost estimate for both buildings. Shutesbury’s project came in at a total estimated cost of $8.3 million, a figure considerably higher than the trustees or the MBLC anticipated. To see if there are ways to reduce the estimate, we will meet with the firm that produced it and will also have it independently evaluated.

Then, the trustees will submit a warrant article to Town Meeting that includes the costs to Shutesbury taxpayers. It is up to the town’s Finance Committee to determine the best way to meet the town’s share of the total costs. The Friends have committed to keep fundraising until we cut the ribbon. We hope the town can find a way to afford our new library.

There have been several efforts over the past 20-odd years to expand or replace our library building. Most recently, in 2011, the MBLC awarded a grant that would have paid almost 60% of the costs of a library. The final vote was very close, and the process was painful for the whole town. The trustees hope that the public process of applying for the Small Library Pilot Project has helped lessen tensions and create goodwill.

Videos and grant application materials have been posted on the pilot project website and updated as soon as possible. Trustees held 12 listening and input sessions and two tours of nearby libraries, and as we neared the application deadline, we held weekly meetings. Townspeople, including people who are skeptical about a new library, attended and provided valuable feedback and oversight.

In response, the plan for the new library has fewer square feet and uses more economic finishes than that of 2011. This time, the grant will cover the solar photovoltaic system. As a town, we’ve earned a new library.

The next step is a vote at Town Meeting on May 21. If the warrant article passes with a two-thirds majority, there would be a ballot vote after 35 days for a debt-excluded override, which needs a simple majority to pass. We will hire a project manager and an architect, and we’ll welcome the input of residents on how our library should look and feel.

We remain committed to keeping operating costs low. We have already specified that the new building will produce its own energy and will be designed to operate with current staffing levels. Our new library will be cozy, comfortable, flexible, and suited to our town’s charm and character. If Town Meeting approves, we will build a new library in Shutesbury, one that will serve our town through many changes for the next 100 years and beyond.

We thank the MBLC for its vision in establishing this grant program, and for its confidence in us. We thank the library director, the volunteers, and the involved residents who devoted so much time and energy to this project.

We hope the pilot has proved its success and informs the future building of libraries in small Massachusetts towns. And we hope that next time, Otis is top of the list. Their library needs a new home, too.

Kate Cell is co-chair of the Shutesbury Board of Library Trustees.