Richards Memorial Library
On August 14, 2008 the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners tentatively awarded the Richards Memorial Library a grant to construct a new library. As has been reported in the local press, the Board of Library Trustees and the Board of Selectmen declined this grant at a joint meeting on September 18, 2008. Why? Why would the town turn down money from the state? It’s a perfectly reasonable question that deserves an answer. Bear in mind, though, this was not a short process and this isn’t a short answer. Here it goes:
The Richards Memorial Library was built in 1894 and was expanded to its present size through additions to the original building in the 1920’s and the 1960’s. In the late 1980’s the entire library was renovated to create more usable space in the cellar. All of these were completely local efforts. Despite these expansions the population of North Attleborough outstripped the capacity of the library. By almost every measure, square feet of space, size of collection, rate of circulation, etc., the Richards Memorial lagged at the bottom of public libraries in towns with nearly the same number of residents. Worst of all, of course, is the parking situation, the library simply has none.
With a view to correct this situation the Trustees and director of the Richards Memorial Library first submitted a letter of intent for a design grant to the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners in the fall of 2000. The intention at that time was to write a statement of need, a building program, and secure funding to hire an architect to draw up schematics for a new library. A new library was chosen over a renovation because of the constricted site the Richards Memorial Library occupies. All state funded projects must address the needs of the community for 20 years. A building program was begun the following spring and written to meet North Attleborough’s needs in 2021 as the state required. To meet state standards for library design a formula of square feet per resident had to be used that would have that the new library needed to have more than 30,000 square feet of floor space.
The design grant application was successful and the Trustees hired J. Stewart Roberts, a Massachusetts architect with extensive library experience, to draw up schematics of a potential new library based upon the building program written in the spring of 2001. At this time the new library was tentatively situated upon a large parcel of land on the north side of Landry Avenue across from the High School and Middle School campuses. The state building consultant working with the library on this project was aware of the site. The proposal for the new library adhered to state mandates: it was designed using the nationally recognized “Wisconsin Standards” and it was designed to meet the needs of the town’s expected population in 2021.
This schematic proposal was submitted to the state in February of 2005 for a potential construction grant. It was denied. The site was considered inappropriate because the new library would not be visible from Landry Avenue. Unexpectedly, however, North Attleborough was invited to resubmit a modified design on a different site.
The building program was modified and new schematics were drawn up that placed the new library on land in downtown North Attleborough. This land was not and is not owned by the town but was of interest to the town administration in late 2005 and early 2006 for possible municipal use.
This second, modified proposal was approved by the state. There was no bond money available from the state for construction at that time for any of the library projects, however, and North Attleborough was placed upon a waiting list. The state failed to pass a construction bond in 2007, too.
The lack of state money available for approved projects only exacerbated the problem that inflation posed for all of the library projects waiting for funding. Throughout this period the projected cost of the new library kept increasing dramatically. It’s important to understand that the sum of the provisional grant, $4.8+ million, would only have covered 25-30% of the new library. The grant would not have covered any of the costs associated with furnishing the new library. Furthermore, the town would have had to bond the entire projected construction cost before receiving a dime of state money in reimbursement.
The Board of Library Trustees sought to reduce the scale of the project to keep construction expenses down. These initiatives were rejected by the state because they would stray too far from the intent of the original grant. The Board of Trustees reached the conclusion that in order to receive state aid for the project as approved too much control over the project would be ceded to the state and the project would simply cost too much.
But it was not simply the expense of construction that raised serious concerns about the project. A larger library would mean higher operating costs. The town has solidly supported the library through the annual budget appropriated by the Representative Town Meeting. This allows the Richards Memorial to maintain its state certification that ensures the library its reciprocal borrowing relationship with other libraries across the Commonwealth. The projected costs of operating the new library also increased along with the cost of construction as time elapsed. Increasing the library’s size too dramatically would jeopardize the library’s budget and its state certification. This would imperil the library’s ability to borrow from other libraries in the state through reciprocity. Exchanging materials with other public libraries is essential for the Richards Memorial because this library’s size does not allow it to hold a collection that is big enough for the town’s population. The risk of losing reciprocity would seriously impair the library’s ability to serve the residents and is something that the trustees do not want to chance.
There would also be an additional dilemma for the town. Part of the contract of the construction grant requires the town to maintain the new library as a certified library, meeting state requirements, for a full twenty years. If the town failed to do so the state would want all the money provided by it for construction returned, with interest.
As everyone is aware the world of 2008 is far different from the world of 2000. Politically and economically 2008 is far more uncertain. The costs of construction have skyrocketed as have the costs of energy. There is increasing pressure upon all municipal services as costs rise. The Board considers a new library building at this time to be an untenable proposition that would require the town of North Attleborough to provide funding beyond what is reasonable given current economic factors.
And, of course, people will also ask, and should ask, why do we need a new or larger library? Does anyone go to the library anymore? Isn’t everything available on the Internet? Well, the library is part of the Internet, its website is www.rmlonline.org. That website had 661,024 hits during FY 2008. People were able to use the card catalog for materials through that website, as well as manage their library account, and also use databases that are available only through the library. But in addition to our popularity as a Web resource the old library on the corner is still a destination that brings people into downtown. The numbers can speak for themselves: Since 2000 circulation at the library has climbed from 91,000 to 153,400 per year. More and more people use the library in person every year even if they don’t take things out and history has shown repeatedly that library use always increases even more during tough economic times.
The Board of Library Trustees maintains that the present library building is too small to adequately meet the present, let alone, future needs of the town. But the Board cannot recommend building the new library as tentatively funded by the state on August 14, 2008. It is the intention of the Board to continue to pursue other options to enable the Richards Memorial to continue to serve North Attleborough in the coming years.
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