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Bloomington Public Library expansion was years (and cutbacks) in the making

New library entrance
Bloomington Public Library
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The Bloomington City Council this week gave its formal endorsement for a $22.8 million Bloomington Public Library expansion. This shows the proposed exterior design of the expansion.

A Bloomington Public Library expansion that's been in the works for over a decade could begin early next year, now that the city council has signaled its support for the nearly $23 million project.

It took many years and a lot of project trimming to get the city's endorsement.

Library circular that names Frederick Douglass.jpg
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A Bloomington Public Library circular from 1868 lists Frederick Douglass as a guest lecturer.

Bloomington Public Library Director Jeanne Hamilton says libraries have always been about more than just books. “I think it’s important to know that libraries have been doing programming forever,” Hamilton said.

For example, she said library staff has been going through some historical artifacts for a project. They came upon materials that referenced a program the library hosted in 1868 featuring abolitionist Frederick Douglass and an 1867 lecture that included essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Hamilton said libraries programming has taken on many different forms over the years. Computers, CDs, DVDs of the last generation have now given way to e-books, digital audiobooks, recording studios, even robotics.

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Bloomington Public Library
Jeanne Hamilton

“We do more technology-based programming, introducing people to things that they might not be able to purchase at home or that they couldn’t justify the purchase of, such as a 3D printer at home,” Hamilton said.

The library plans to include the 3D printer as part of a new maker's lab. That's just one new feature in the library's proposed expansion that also will include three times the space for community gatherings and study.

Hamilton said the pandemic reduced demand for their community meeting room. That enabled them to use it for GED classes and Bloomington High School e-sports practices without conflict, but Hamilton said they are feeling squeezed for space now.

“We have tried to stretch as much as we can in our existing building, but we often have to turn people away from programs,” Hamilton said. “We turn people away from reserving our community spaces because we just have one smaller community room.”

The library's last expansion, in 2006, improved accessibility and gave the library 25% more space. Talk of a larger expansion or even a new location started not long after that. The city council and the library went back and forth over cost.

The library had pitched a $37 million expansion. City officials said as recently as 2019, they wanted something in the $10 million to $12 million range. The two parties settled on $22.8 million, with $17 million of that coming from city financing paid for by a $30 property tax increase for the average homeowner. The library plans to kick in $4 million in reserves and fund raise to cover the rest.

The city council voted in support of the library project this week, though two of the nine council members opposed the plan, citing the cost.

Sheila Montney, who represents much of far east Bloomington in Ward 3, said she recalls the council previously considered either a library expansion or a new O'Neill Pool for west Bloomington. Now, the city is doing both at a time when she said there's public frustration about the city's short-changed infrastructure.

“That passion remains out there. We’ve heard heartbreaking stories about our sewer infrastructure and our need to invest there and yet we talk taking essentially the opportunity to spend another coliseum in these two investments,” Montney said referring to combined cost of the two projects and the city’s downtown arena once known as U.S. Cellular Coliseum. She referenced the public backlash the city faced for approving funding for the venue after voters rejected it in an advisory referendum.

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The Bloomington Public Library recently discovered a reporter's notes about a 1867 lecture by Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Montney also raised concern the city's budget has increased 50% or an additional $85 million since 2013.

Jamie Mathy was first appointed to the council in 2013. Mathy represents residents in Ward 1 in south Bloomington. Mathy said funding the library and funding infrastructure should not be an either-or proposition. He said you can say"'yes" to both. He said for too long the city said "no" and is paying for it now.

“We weren’t working on sewer lines, which is part of the reason we had some of the problems this summer,” Mathy said alluding to flooding that damaged hundreds of homes. “We weren’t working on a water plan and working on maintaining our water lines for the future. The list of things we weren’t doing is almost longer than the list of things we were doing.”

Mathy said he has residents in Ward 1 who walk to the library, in some cases to apply for jobs because they don't have a computer at home.

The downtown library is part of Ward 6. The council member for that ward is De Urban. Urban said she supports the expansion because that's what her constituents want. “There are over 80 more people that have asked me to say yes than have asked me to say no. For that reason alone, because the majority of the voice of Ward 6 and the other people I have talked to that live in Bloomington, they have expressed that they do want this library expanded,” Urban said.

Hamilton said she remains mindful of cost. She said the library is in the quiet phase of a campaign to raise the remaining $1.75 million. She said if fundraising falls short, the library will have to trim further or expand in phases. She said the library will not go back to the city for more money.

“We absolutely will not increase taxes more, so that would mean that we would be scaling back the project,” she said. “There’s things we have looked at, like furniture in the building. (We’ll consider) where we can save, what are things that can be done later.”

Hamilton said she's excited to see the project move forward so that the library can offer equal access to everyone. The library plans to break ground on construction next April and have expansion done by August 2023.

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