Library ... plus: today’s version provides much more than books - Salish Current
February 27, 2024
Library … plus: today’s version provides much more than books
Adam M. Sowards

Part of a new trend in libraries, Mount Vernon’s new library will go beyond books, housing new features such as a commercial incubator kitchen, a large EV charging station, expanded meeting space and more. The new building is twice as large as what it replaces and twice as energy-efficient.  In Blaine, a presentation on a proposed project for library replacement, commercial space and  affordable and market-rate condominiums will be held Feb. 29. (HKP Architects courtesy MVCL/Isaac Huffman)

February 27, 2024
Library … plus: today’s version provides much more than books
Adam M. Sowards


Libraries in the 21st century do more than provide access to books and digital information. They serve as hubs that support multiple community needs, including many that libraries were not originally intended to meet. 

As cities and towns upgrade their libraries, they are reconceiving and redesigning their buildings and missions. 

The Mount Vernon Library Commons now under construction on West Kincaid Street between South Second and Third Streets is a good example.

Envisioned as a community connector, the new library plans to open in summer with meeting spaces, a commercial kitchen, parking and library services housed in a cutting-edge building.

A need to know more

“The traditional library arose from the need for the community to learn,” said Isaac Huffman, the director of the Mount Vernon City Library.

Benjamin Franklin took credit for organizing the first library in America and counted it as a great success. “These Libraries have improv’d the general Conversation of the Americans, made the common Tradesmen & Farmers as intelligent as most Gentlemen from other Countries, and perhaps have contributed in some degree to the Stand so generally made throughout the Colonies in Defence of their Privileges,” Franklin wrote in his autobiography.

“I think the goal of the library really stems from its original vision,” Huffman said. “We were founded by the Civic Improvement Club back over a hundred years ago, and the goal was to improve civic life.”

The Library Commons embodies that broad goal in several ways.

New facilities, more services

“We’re bursting out of this building,” said Suzanne Butler, the president of the Mount Vernon Library Foundation.

Story times and other community activities fill the current library on Snoqualmie Street, just two blocks southwest of the new site, and further growth is not possible. It was built in 1954 with expansions in 1969 and 1981.

Building a new standalone library was not financially feasible, but combining a library with other community services made the Library Commons possible.

Community meetings surfaced several goals of the public, including making a difference with climate change, providing community gathering space, supporting local business and helping advance professional and academic careers.

The children’s library space will more than double, and a new teen area with a STEM center will be added. New services will be available. For example, school-aged children often need supplemental support to reach reading objectives, Huffman said. Libraries help parents provide that support.

For teens, the STEM center is meant to help build skills for employment.

The Mount Vernon Library Commons will be the first public building in the state to be a certified Passive House, helping address the climate crisis by reducing energy demand and providing comfortable, healthy indoor environments. (HKP Architects courtesy MVCL/Isaac Huffman)

“I think even those people who aren’t readers and aren’t library people can see the need for kids,” Butler. Hearing stories about kids studying or learning English helps the community recognize the library serves big needs, she said. 

A larger building, about 28,000 square feet total, will provide additional community benefits. 

Conference rooms and meeting spaces that can be configured into different sizes will eliminate the need for staff and Mount Vernon residents to hold larger events at the Burlington Public Library. 

The incubator kitchen has three functions, Huffman said. It can be used for catering, programs in the library or as a commercial kitchen.

“The core mission of the kitchen,” Huffman said, “is [to] help food-based businesses really get off the ground by renting the commercial space to those businesses.”

Businesses will be able to use the kitchen to get their products ready for market, something that is a barrier for many who have no access to expensive commercial kitchen space.

In all these ways, the Library Commons will incubate minds and businesses.

Going very green

The building itself embodies broad public goals, too.

“We have probably the greenest building that’s been publicly bid, at least in the state of Washington, going up here,” Huffman said.

Everything from the concrete mix and windows to stormwater management and insulation is designed for sustainability.

The solar array of 134,000 kilowatt hours is included, enough to supply about 20% of the building’s energy needs.

Although the new library will be more than double the size of the existing one, it will use less energy, Huffman said.

The parking garage will contain nearly 300 parking spaces including 76 EV charging stations, making it the nation’s largest public EV station. That capacity should help alleviate congestion downtown, where significant parking was lost with the flood wall construction a decade ago, and perhaps attract more businesses to the district.

Without bonds or levy

All of this is “silly expensive,” Huffman said of the $54 million cost.

However, because it serves so many functions, the city has been able to find grants, loans and other financing from a variety of sources and not issue bonds or rely on a levy.

The transportation elements have been especially helpful in attracting investment. Just last month, the foundation announced a $12.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

The project received more than 500 letters of support or donations, which ranged from $10 to $250,000.

“It is bigger than all of us,” Butler, which she thinks is why the Library Commons has come together at a time when divisions are common.

Other towns, other solutions

Libraries’ situations vary in other Northwest Washington towns.

Two years ago voters on San Juan Island voted against funding a new library, citing concerns over costs and incomplete plans. Meanwhile, the new La Conner Swinomish Library opened last fall, doubling the original space.

A conceptual rendering shows housing proposed for the current Blaine library site which could be incorporated into a new library and child care facility. (Zervas Architects courtesy Paul Schissler)

In Blaine, plans have been presented for another multi-use property including a bigger replacement Whatcom County Library System branch library. In January, community planner and consultant Paul Schissler shared a preliminary plan to the city council on behalf of the Kulshan Community Land Trust.

If financing can be secured, the plan calls for two buildings that will include affordable housing, an updated library and perhaps a childcare center.

This kind of mixed use has been tried elsewhere and can help solve affordable housing shortages and update library resources.

Schissler believes there would be mutual benefits from co-locating these spaces in terms of development costs.

These examples show that communities are reconceiving libraries and how to combine them with different community needs.

Doing even more

“I’m looking forward to moving from just simply a library service to a collection of community services,” Huffman said. “We want to make it a little bit better to live in Mount Vernon because we exist as a service.”

The public often sees government departments as providing a single service, Huffman said. The library does more, and in the future it will do even more.

That means we will need to think about libraries differently.

“Libraries do more than just circulate information nowadays,” said Schissler.

“Since I’ve started working with the foundation, every time you talk to somebody, they start telling you a story, a library story, and it’s very gratifying,” Butler said; everyone’s life has been touched by libraries.

How they will be touched by libraries in the future is bound to be different from the past.

— Reported by Adam M. Sowards


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