Library ‘pulled this town together'
Kathleen Martens has lived in Fitchburg for 28 years, but until three years ago, she had to go to Oregon to get her fix of nonfiction books.
“I read a lot,” said Marten, one of 12,000 Fitchburg residents who had a library card in another community before the library was built, based on statistics given by library supporters in 2009.
Marten was on hand when that changed, on June 29, 2011, with the opening of Fitchburg’s own library. Three years later, she and her two grandsons were back to celebrate the building’s third birthday.
“I think (the library’s) what has pulled this town together,” Martens said. “It’s become such an important part of our life.”
Becoming an important part of community life is what the ultimate goal for the library was, in a city that has no downtown and no school district of its own, said library board member Pauli Nikolay.
“We’d like the heart and soul of the community to be the library, and provide functions for babies all the way up through grandparents and senior citizens,” Nikolay said.
While many think of classic, hardcover books when they think of a library, in Fitchburg it’s much more, whether a meeting place, a fun program for children or using the computers to check email.
But for those most heavily involved, from Library Board members to director Wendy Rowson, their work is far from over. They still have much to do to reach the entire Fitchburg community, especially those who might not have a way to access the Lacy Road facility.
“How do we create more and more partnerships and relationships?” Nikolay said. “That is critically important, because we still have people who don’t know there’s a library.”
A long road
Before a 2008 referendum that approved funding for the library’s construction (and even soon after), it wasn’t always clear Fitchburg wouldhave a library.
But a group had worked on making it happen for years before, including Marykay Zimbrick, who was part of a Library Committee in the early 2000s after moving to Fitchburg in 1996.
“I was surprised to find out we didn’t have our own library,” Zimbrick said. “I always thought that was a drawback to Fitchburg.”
She said the committee, which she served on with two others and which had former mayor Tom Clauder’s support, heard “very strong opinions one way or the other” on the library during their time. It took many factors into consideration, she said, in putting together the referendum.
Even after that vote, it was not clear how the plan would move forward as voters simultaneously rejected an increased budget for the annual operating cost. The Common Council followed later that month by opposing a resolution in support of the library, leaving the next move up in the air.
Eventually, the Library Board reduced the operating costs and got approval from the city in 2009 to go ahead with construction plans.
The city held three open houses to hear from the public on what features it wanted to see in a new library, and construction began in June 2010.
One year later, Fitchburg finally had its own library, though those in support of it saw it as much more than that.
“It’s something that Fitchburg was sorely lacking in the past, a place for people in the community to meet,” Zimbrick said. “Bringing those things to our community that really make it seem like a community rather than a bunch of houses built out in the country.”
More than books
That community idea is something trumpeted by not only Zimbrick, but other supporters, as well.
With no clearly identifiable downtown and a municipal boundary that accommodates three different school districts – each with another community’s name – Rowson said the library has “really become kind of a community center.”
And that idea helps to keep the library modern, as e-readers and Internet access become just as important for a community as a collection of books.
Nikolay said that while “we certainly believe in the importance of books,” she and others recognize that a library must serve its users in many ways.
That’s always been part of the plan, and why statistics showing what goes on at the library outside of checked out items are promising for Rowson.
Those include 799 youth programs with 25,277 attendees, 78,457 computer sessions and “body counts” of 3,600 visitors in a given week.
But that doesn’t mean books are ignored, especially because an impetus for building the library was the number of Fitchburg residents who checked out books at other libraries in the area, whether Madison, Verona or Oregon, said library board member Karen Julesberg.
“Fitchburg has always been a community of readers,” Julesberg said.
That community has found the books and other programs useful, the board members said, and that has helped to change the opinions of some who originally doubted the usefulness of Fitchburg having its own library.
Alice Jenson, president of the library’s fundraising arm, Friends of the Fitchburg Public Library, told the Star about a neighbor who had questioned whether the extra taxes were worth the library, but has come around since.
“About a year ago, he said, I gotta tell ya, ‘my kids ride their bikes to the library everyday in the summer time,’” she said.
Zimbrick said her “greatest satisfaction” is now seeing those who opposed the library checking out books.
While changing those minds is good, those still working with the library know there is plenty more to do to ensure the library’s long-term health and benefit the entirety of Fitchburg.
The library began developing its strategic plan in 2012, as the Library Board gathered community input and library data to determine what the focus should be for the library’s development.
After those determinations, the library formed “action teams” of board members, library staff, community members and members of the Friends of the Library.
Those teams cover five core issues: finances, organization, learning/discovery, relationships/partnerships and getting the word out.
Rowson, Julesberg and Nikolay all emphasized the last two, specifically, as they realize the size and lack of centrality in Fitchburg limit access for some to the facility and all it offers.
“This is a very large geographic community, which makes it challenging,” Julesberg said.
“We need to still get out there in terms of the services and programming we offer,” Nikolay added.
Specifically, Rowson touched on the North Fish Hatchery Road/Leopold Elementary School area and the Jamestown area, which both include pockets of lower-income residents.
That outreach began over the last year, with the library sending volunteers to the weekly Leopold Open Schoolhouse nights to remind the community of the opportunities offered, and will continue with outreach programs into the fall.
“We’re aware not everyone at Fitchburg can get to the library,” Rowson said.
Zimbrick said it was a problem the original library committee was aware of from the start, though she “didn’t fully appreciate” the scale of the issue.
“It’s a complicated problem, and a lot of it can be solved with people putting their heads together and thinking outside the box,” she said. “It’s just a matter of how do we do it in a cost-effective way and a way that we’re actually having some impact.”
Once they are able to determine how exactly to staff increased programs in those areas, which is the biggest hurdle to increased programming, Rowson said they are willing to consider anything that can benefit the community using the library’s resources.
“We’re pretty open to what those activities could be, maybe book clubs, maybe storytimes,” she said. “It’s kind of hard to tell until you have something that’s successful that people attend.”