L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library already is home to nearly 200,000 stories in book, video or audio format.
But now community leaders are preparing to ask Chippewa Valley residents and institutions to help tell a new tale — the story of the future of the library itself.
The first chapter will begin this week when officials plan to announce details about what they are calling the Story Builder campaign, a $7 million private fundraising drive to write a happy ending for the library's expansion plan. The effort will begin with appeals to foundations, businesses and major donors this fall and likely will continue by reaching out to individual contributors in the spring, said Carol Gabler, one of three capital campaign co-chairs.
The proposed project calls for expanding library space by roughly 50 percent by adding about 30,000 square feet through building a third floor and growing the building's footprint at street level. The expansion is being pursued along with an $11.5 million renovation and mechanical system upgrade funded by the city of Eau Claire.
"I think the big thing is that the community has grown and our service area has grown and yet our building has not," said Pamela Westby, library director. "The trajectory is not good."
The current 61,000-square-foot library was constructed in 1976, when Eau Claire County's population was about 67,000. U.S. Census Bureau estimates now put the county's population about 55 percent higher at nearly 105,000, but the library building remains the same size. Meanwhile, library records show circulation has more than tripled — from loaning 271,431 items in 1976 to 856,918 items in 2018.
"With the expansion, we will be able to get back to where we were," Westby said. "We will have room for more books, more computers and more places for people to gather and to sit and read."
Planned upgrades also include adding a 200-seat community room for author visits and civic engagement programs, building a new front atrium entrance, improving accessibility, opening a hands-on learning lab and increasing space for youth services, study rooms, literacy programming and a "library of things" offering an array of gear such as art, tools, craft kits, cooking supplies, musical instruments, wellness kits, technology devices and learning resources.
Eau Claire City Councilwoman Emily Anderson, a member of the library's board of trustees, sees a need for the expansion, considering the growth in both the community and the ways people use libraries.
"I think a lot of people thought libraries would die with print going digital, but that hasn't been the case," Anderson said. "Instead, libraries have found more ways to help people connect — through meetings, lectures, craft workshops. People still want that in-person connection. The library can become a physical, community space in a virtual world."
L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library, which is open 63 hours a week and reports being downtown's most visited destination with more than 1,200 visitors a day, recently was recognized by the Wisconsin Library Association as the state's 2019 Library of the Year for its leadership in providing new services and reaching new populations.
That includes being the first Wisconsin library to hire a full-time social worker to help address homelessness and mental health issues, adding an early childhood literacy outreach specialist to reach children at at early age, putting books on city buses to promote literacy and creating digital access to local music to support the creative economy.
An investment in the library is an investment in the future, Westby said, adding, "The library is the one public space left that's truly democratic."
She backed up that claim by pointing out that people can enter the library and access its resources regardless of age, income, membership, citizenship status or even whether they have an ID or an address of their own.
"As long as you're abiding by the guidelines, you're free to be here," Westby said, noting that the social work and literacy services fit well with the library's reputation as a place where people can seek help while maintaining their privacy and not being subjected to discrimination.
Anderson, an avid library user since she was a child who regularly left the Eau Claire library with a stack of books in her arms, said she was particularly impressed by the facility's 2018 adoption of a fine-free policy on most items, a change she believes reduces economic barriers to library use as well as the kind of shame she once felt for failing to return books on time.
What Anderson called the "forward-thinking approach" of Eau Claire library officials seems to have put the facility on the leading edge of an emerging trend of "whole-person librarianship," an approach that strengthens the role of libraries in communities by building relationships with patrons, particularly those who are vulnerable, she said.
Despite the library's successes, Westby said the expansion would help it "become that much better."
"It tells the community they can trust us with the resources they've invested," she said.
Overall, the 21,206 card holders who used the Eau Claire library in 2018 checked out 856,918 items and engaged in 51,096 computer sessions for work, entertainment and research.
The library helps bridge the digital divide by providing access to computers, the internet and printers for people who can't afford them, don't have space for them, have difficulty keeping up with hardware and software updates or simply choose not to invest in a digital device larger than a cellphone, Westby said.
Though it might surprise some people, the library reaches all age groups, as 22% of the library's card holders are younger than 18, 11% are 18 to 24 and 14% are 65 and older. Every 10-year increment in between accounts for at least 10%, with the 25-34 age group making up the largest share at 18%, according to library records.
Library officials scaled back their initial goal of raising $11.5 million in private donations in response to a feasibility study by a consulting company. The study by Crescendo Fundraising Professionals of Houston, Minn., found strong support for upgrading the library but indicated local philanthropists were feeling a sense of donor fatigue and projected that $7 million in donations was a more attainable goal.
Private donations played a major part in opening downtown's Pablo Center at the Confluence last fall, and projects for the Eau Claire Children’s Museum, Feed My People Food Bank and UW-Eau Claire’s planned Sonnentag Event and Recreation Complex are also anticipated to tap major donors.
Anderson and Gabler acknowledged the challenge of launching a major fundraising campaign at a time with so many other projects competing for donations, but both expressed confidence that the effort would be successful. If so, officials said construction could begin in 2021 or 2022.
"I do think this is a community where residents are really passionate about being a community that invests in our people, and this library expansion is a way to invest in one another," Anderson said, noting that libraries play an important role in a community's quality of life — an increasingly important factor that individuals and business leaders consider in determining where to locate.
"Our community has been asked to do a lot," Gabler said, "but I look at how people stepped forward for the Pablo Center and for other things, and I'm confident people will be willing to give something again. Our downtown is so exciting now, and enhancing our library will just make downtown, and our whole community, even better."