Editor’s note: For this installment of “Country Matters,” The Country Today reporters take a look at the state of several small-town libraries and what libraries mean to their communities.
COLBY — Libraries are a thing of the past in some people’s minds, but for those living in rural communities especially, they can be the lifeblood of the community. For the Colby community, that is exactly what the new 10,600-square-foot library has become — a mecca for books, movies and other media along with a treasure trove of resources and events to stimulate the community.
Colby Community Library Director Vicky Calmes said she found out shortly after starting the job in 2006 that the current library was not nearly big enough to create the library she thought the community needed.
“About a week into the new position, the mayor visited and asked if the library needed more space, as that was a topic on the city of Colby’s five-year plan. As I was just getting acquainted with the job, I responded no. About a month later as I was struggling to find space for things, I sincerely regretted my previous answer,” she said. “The 2,400-square-foot space was indeed too small to hold my ideas for what a library should be.”
Since 2006, the library has seen a constant increase in circulation of materials, from just more than 30,000 circulations in 2006 to more than 87,000 items circulated in 2018. Realizing they needed more space to meet the community’s needs, Calmes said the Colby Public Library Board of Trustees began looking for ways they could expand the library, with the city also looking at options. After several failed ideas, a pair of anonymous donors met with library and city officials to discuss expansion plans. They pledged $50,000 to conduct an assessment study and cost analysis for a freestanding, new library building with the promise of $450,000 in building funds.
“A space-needs assessment was done. For the size of our community, a 13,000-square-foot building was recommended,” she said.
Land was purchased from the Colby School District for $100 and the current building on that land, which had lead paint and asbestos that needed to be taken care of, was demolished. An income survey was successfully completed for the writing of a Community Development Block Grant, which resulted in receiving a $500,000 grant. This along with $500,000 pledged by the city council and the anonymous donors increasing their funding to $1 million helped fund the project.
“The donors did come forward at our Open House on Feb. 17, 2018. They turned out to be the children of Pearl Vorland — son, Jim and Pam Vorland and daughter, Mary and Allen Singstock. They decided to carry on Pearl’s philanthropic nature to the community of Colby where Pearl had lived through her 100th year,” Calmes said.
Although circulation numbers and the space assessment said there was need for a new library, some people were still skeptical of building a new library, saying books would be obsolete someday. Calmes said the community support was overwhelming however, with over 200 individuals, businesses and families monetarily supported the project.
“Colby, population 1,817, does not have a YMCA or a senior center or a place youth can gather. The Colby Community Library is a place where people of all ages can gather for educational and social interaction,” she said.
The library has two study rooms that are available for students to use to study or social services organizations to meet with clients. It also has a history room, which Calmes said is the focal point of the building.
“Dedicated to Pearl Vorland, it offers the opportunity to step back in time to the Carnegie Library years. The room is filled with CHS yearbooks, newspapers on microfilm from the mid-1800s and a myriad of Wisconsin and local history tomes,” she said.
In addition to the resources available, the library hosts education organizations, story times, a summer reading program, book clubs and community service days that all aim to enrich the community. The facility also has a S.T.E.A.M. playroom available as an educational and social space for children.
The library officially opened in December 2017 and Calmes said the first year saw the library busier than ever.
“If you build it, they will come,” she said. “This adage proved to be 100 percent accurate. (We had) 100 new family library cards added. People that had strayed away from the library came to see what it was like and now have come back. People seem to like our ample space, friendly atmosphere and good selection of materials.”
The library is still not done growing, Calmes said, with plans to build a gazebo in the backyard this summer in memory of Denis Woik, a community member who died of cancer in 2018. There also will be a backdrop of rusty steel, sculptures and plantings added to the outdoor amphitheater to create a more stage environment.
“When we were doing our library construction project, we seemed like the Lone Ranger. There were very few new libraries to tour. But now, there seems to be a revival of library projects,” she said, adding several area communities have since renovated or built libraries.