Library Supporters Push For Building Expansion
Residents and library officials say it's time to build an addition to the 131-year-old structure.
Bright yellow "Yes to Our Library" signs have been sprouting up on lawns all over the city in the last few weeks.
The signs are a symbol of the groundswell of support for the Woburn Public Library expansion effort. Residents have also been meeting weekly to coordinate plans to educate the public and officials on the plan to build an addition to the library.
"[Library supporters] have been doing studies and reports for the last 100-plus years that have found that we need more space," said Christi Showman-Farrar, the young adult librarian.
According to the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners, a community of Woburn's size should have at least four seats per 1,000 residents for a total of 152 seats. The Woburn Public Library currently has 37 seats.
"The need is definitely there," said Showman-Farrar.
"This building was built as a library for a smaller community and at a time when only men went to the library," she added. "When they decided it was OK for children to come to the library, they created a space where the fiction collection is now. But they outgrew that space because it's tiny. So the Children's Room was put downstairs, but it's inadequate."
The historic building was designed by famed library architect H.H. Richardson – it was his first public library – and was donated to the city in 1879.
For over 130 years, the building has been left virtually untouched.
Library Trustee Richard Mahoney noted that while the library opened in 1879, Woburn City Hall was built in 1930.
"At the time City Hall was built, it housed all the agencies and the courthouse," said Mahoney. "In the last 30 years, a lot of the city's departments have moved away from that city hall because they don't have the room for it."
"This place was opened 50 years before City Hall was built and it's never changed a bit," he added.
Although physically unchanged on the outside, the building has been altered due to heavy use.
"We know the history of this building," said resident Ed Quinn. "We have seen it evolve and in some cases, crumble over the years."
Library expansion supporters stress that the proposed project would not change the historic value of the building.
"One of the things that has happened over the last 130 years, this building has been used to the point that we're doing damage to it," said Showman-Farrar. "Part of this project is to renovate this building and bring it back to life and give it the respect it deserves."
Library officials estimate that if the building was constructed today, using the same stone and hand-carving, the structure would cost $40 million or more.
The library expansion, as outlined today, would cost approximately $24 million, $7 million of which would be paid with a state-funded grant ($5 million) and library trustees' funding ($2 million). The remaining funds – $17 million – would be paid with a debt exclusion that needs to be approved by voters.
"Yes, $17 million is a lot of money, but it's also a bargain," said Showman-Farrar. "What we're going to be doing is more than doubling the square footage for this building and bringing services up to the 21st century."
"This would be the first time the city would have to pay for the structure of the library," she added.
The Library Trustees estimate that the $17 million debt exclusion would cost taxpayers approximately $70 a year.
Mahoney said the expansion proposal does not have the support of some local officials.
"What I have said to counter [their arguments] is, it wasn't a good time before, it's not a good time now," said Mahoney. "Can we be assured it will be a good time five or seven years from now? We don't have that assurance."
With that in mind, residents have formed a committee that meets weekly to coordinate efforts for persuading the public and officials to hold a special debt exclusion election in the spring.
"We think the time is now and we really have to press for right now," said Mahoney.
"This is the one place that is open to all people, regardless of background," said Showman-Farrar. "We have a great opportunity to make this something to be proud of."
Editor's note: Woburn Patch will take readers on a virtual tour of the Woburn Public Library tomorrow with an image gallery showcasing the historic building.