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Normal Library could close to public for asbestos removal project

Normal Public Library
Ralph Weisheit
WGLT file
The Normal Public Library. The town has frequently mentioned the potential for a new library building in Uptown South.

The director of the Normal Public Library recommends going ahead with asbestos removal that will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, a recommendationthat will trigger a special meeting May 17 to hear from an architect and environmental firm about the work

The asbestos is in ceiling tiles and structural fireproofing on the portion of the library built in 1973. A 1992 addition does not have asbestos.

The town has frequently mentioned the potential for a new library building in Uptown South.

Library Director John Fischer said any potential new library building is eight to 10 years away, depending on fundraising and planning. He said asbestos removal is the responsible thing to do for the public and for any future owner of the building because the fireproofing is cracking and separating from metal beams.

"I would say we don't know the extent it is delaminating except for where we have rooms, which are not in the public, in the basement where we do not have ceiling tiles. And we can see it because it falls on the floor. When that happens, we seal off the room and we call an environmental group to clean it," said Fischer.

He estimated the last cleanup cost about $1,000 and there have been two in two months. Library officials learned about the problem in 2020 during ADA-driven bathroom renovations and have been studying the issue since the library reopened following peak COVID.

Fischer said the asbestos issue also prevents the library from replacing lighting and doing other upgrades.

"We're stuck. We get comments from time to time about our Wi-Fi, about our computer access, and none of these things can be updated because a lot of that is with wiring and network work above the ceiling, and we can't get up there," said Fischer.

An environmental firm has estimated asbestos removal costs of about $300,000. That involves manually scraping the structure above the ceiling tiles using hands, tools, and water jets. Workers would seal off things that cannot be removed.

Fischer said the library also would need new lighting fixtures, air ducts, a ceiling, portions of some walls, and perhaps new carpet as a refresh of the facility at the same time.

"It's obvious to staff who work here and to some of the public that the building has not been refreshed in a while in terms of wall coverings, furniture, some carpeting, especially upstairs. That's something we desire to do. It's not as urgent as the abatement. The abatement is what's holding us up for really improving services like network, our security services, and Wi-Fi," said Fischer.

There's no estimate yet on the cost of that refresh work.

And, he said the project would dislocate the library for an estimated nine months.

"We don't have to move entirely, necessarily. But we wouldn't have the public in the building during the work. At least that's the proposal. The '92 addition is not part of the abatement, so it's possible we could work out of there if it were sealed off properly, but no public in the building," said Fischer.

He said they would still do curbside pickup. The library would hold some events and programs outdoors if weather permits and could look at temporary quarters for some other functions.

“A short-term lease is a possibility. I wouldn't rule that out, but it's early in my opinion," said Fischer.

"Assuming they approve going ahead, we would work very closely with trustees (library board members) to get a general scope and then in the weeds with staff. We would determine with Town of Normal staff to find out what spaces might be available to us on that timeline," said Fischer.

The library has some reserves with which to pay for the work, but Fischer said they would also budget and plan accordingly once bids go out and the full costs are known.

WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.