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Sanibel Public Library Moving Forward and Back Again

Published April 30, 2018

The following is a article from Fort Myers Florida Weekly:

Sanibel Public Library’s executive director Margaret Mohundro.

WHEN MARGARET MOHUNDRO TALKS ABOUT SANIBEL Public Library’s “reimagined” project, she uses seemingly contradictory terms like high-tech and print books; modern space and living rooms; Think Tank and rocking chairs; quiet and collaborative; virtual reality and human connections. “Our design criteria was very specific,” said the library’s executive director of 10 years. “Architecture modern and sleek and high-tech looking, but we need to keep the Sanibel feel and vibe. A mix of the natural world and the tech world. I think they nailed it.”

In planning since early 2015, the Your Library Reimagined project awarded HBM Architects — library specialists from Cleveland, Ohio — the redesign contract. The project began with the need to upgrade electric, climate control, fire supression, plumbing and electronic infrastructure to a new technological and sustainable standard. “There was no Internet when the building was built in 1994,” said Ms. Mohundro. “The old electric system hindered us on what new services we could provide.”

The library’s board of commissioners made the call: While they were tearing down walls to update, they may as well modernize the whole second floor of the library to meet the needs of today’s and tomorrow’s visitors. Between that decision and design finalization, the board involved staff and the community.

“People have a real sense of ownership here for their library,” said Ms. Mohundro, referring to the fact that the library is an independent special district, separate from the county library system and with a citizen-elected board. “You feel like you really have a say.”

The board set a budget of $5.9 million. Funding came from the Sanibel Public Library Foundation, library reserves, grants and gifts.

Project completion is planned for September 2018. Currently, construction has entered phase II after the library closed for 2½ weeks in January-February. The library remained open the rest of the time, but with parts closed off and half of its collection in storage. The library offsets the availability of fewer materials with efficient interlibrary loans.

“Patrons have been so very understanding and patient,” said Ms. Mohundro. “That lowers the stress level.”

Already visitors can see major physical changes. A second entrance and help desk (currently serving as the only entryway and point of service) demonstrates how the new layout will flow for visual appeal and improved user service. Elements will be mounted on casters to allow flexibility and meet changing needs. New, transformable exhibit spaces draw in visitors with engaging themes.

Most noticeably, things have brightened up. By making bigger windows, moving and lowering shelving and installing LED lighting, the library feels “brighter, but more soothing,” as Ms. Mohundro put it. Easier on the eyes, easier on the mind, easier on the budget.

“We are decreasing our carbon footprint… and bringing the outside in,” said Linda Uhler, the board of commissioners chair. “We couldn’t do that 20 years ago. Big windows were not energy-efficient back then.”

Libraries in modern times

Contrary to what many believe, libraries today are more popular than ever. Patrons may be looking for different, high-tech services these days, but at the same time they seek collaborative spaces to interact with one another physically or via electronic connections.

“You know that old library stereotype – shhh don’t talk,” said Ms. Uhler. “We don’t want to have lots of noise, but we want people to engage and collaborate. There will be tutoring rooms, study rooms to Skype and meeting rooms.” The original circulation area will remain but will also contain the children’s section and maker spaces that will heighten interactivity, while the computer lab area, which was added in a 2004 expansion, will become a quieter space filled with non-fiction shelves and periodicals.

“They are looking to cozy up in a corner with a good book. Or a good computer,” said Ms. Mohundro of today’s library users. “They want to maintain a strong sense of community. People want to connect again as humans. Happily people still want that in their library.”

To that end, the new library will include “living rooms,” spaces where patrons can get comfortable reading or interacting with others. Readers are returning to print books, and SPL is responding to that need with more book shelving.

Since computer services are no longer tied to occupying a certain space, thanks to WiFi, the old tech labs can be used for more books, while the number of computers available for patron use also increases.

The mobile Think Tank brings library techieness to a pinnacle with the flexibility of doing demonstrations on virtual reality, 3D printing, robotics and other innovations. The SanLib mobile app also steps up technical integration. A scanning lab is in the works, a modernism that serves the purpose of preserving island history.

In the past tense

“One of the key roles of a public library is to preserve local documents and cultural heritage,” said Ms. Mohundro. “We’ve always had archives, with the help of grants.” One new grant is making possible state-of-the-art digitalization areas for the thousands of postcards, maps, written letters, drawings, diaries and other historical documents out there. The library is calling out to islanders to search for older photos to bring in.

“We help them scan them as long as we can keep copies,” said the librarian. “We can’t lose these valuable things. On Sanibel, everyone is interested in history.”

The library itself represents a slice of island history that began 55 years ago. “In October of 1962 the founders of Sanibel Public Library visited the Fort Myers and Fort Myers Beach libraries to determine what their minimum needs would be in opening a Sanibel library,” wrote reference librarian and island historian Betty Anholt in the document “How to Start a Library.” “The ferry was their connection to the rest of the mainland. The causeway was not yet a reality. Nor was a Lee County Library system.”

In April 1963, the first Sanibel library opened with 600 books on a few shelves in the Sanibel Community House. It moved around to a couple of other locations in the mid to late ’60s and finally settled into its own designated building on Library Way in 1973.

The current, contemporary library on Dunlop Road opened in 1994 and became a special taxing district, by local referendum, in 2005. The library’s collection, to reflect the community’s character, concentrates on fiction, history, lifestyle, health, travel, gardening, decorating and the arts.

“We are one of the busiest libraries per capita in the state of Florida,” said Ms. Mohundro. The average Sanibel resident visits the library 18 times a year compared to the national average of eight times. As far as number of items, computers and other stats, SPL ranks “at or near the top.”

Keeping what works

Before Sanibel Public Library opens as a finished, reimagined product, it will again close for a week to 10 days late summer. The board and staff are planning possibly a series of ceremonies and open houses to share the new library with its full-time and wintering patrons.

The library will maintain its pre-construction footprint, maximizing space for ultimate efficiency. The Reading Porch remains, though slightly enlarged, refurnished, and quieter, thanks to an advanced air-conditioning system.

Improved children’s and teen spaces will continue to offer all their programs and services plus more. Headlining authors will continue to speak at the popular free winter lecture series. From puzzles, cooking kits and print magazines to eBooks and tech training workshops, SPL finds ways to make the library a place of learning, socializing and relaxing for patrons of all ages.

“The changes are all for the better,” said Ms. Uhler. “It’s still going to have a good feeling, it’s still going to be a Sanibel library. I think people are going to be surprised.”

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