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The library dish

Brian Korthals/Daily Globe Volunteer Morgan Woodbury (left) hands out bingo sheets for children during a special program Thursday at the Nobles County Library in Worthington.

WORTHINGTON -- With Nobles County commissioners scheduled to vote soon on about $11 million in bonding for the purpose of constructing a new library, talk continues to circulate about whether a new facility is really needed in the first place.

For patrons like Lyle Kingery, 89, Reading, the existing 50-year-old War Memorial building on Worthington's 12th Street that is home to the Nobles County Library seems perfectly adequate.

Catching up with the St. Paul Pioneer Press sports section most weekdays in the library's periodicals area is part of Kingery's routine, and he said, "The staff works pretty hard. I don't care too much one way or another, but I know the staff thinks a new library would help them."

Certainly, with 350 to 400 people passing through the library's doors on a daily basis, over 6,000 children attending library-sponsored programs in 2011 alone and more than 60,000 different items having been checked out to Nobles County residents last year, the existing 9,000 square-foot space can seem more than a little cramped and hectic at many moments.

"The needs assessment ordered by the Nobles County commissioners in 2009, which was conducted by library consultant George Lawson, determined that we really needed up to 32,000 square feet to accommodate our service population of roughly 21,000," detailed Julie Wellnitz, Nobles County library director.

"The latest recommendations are for a minimum of 28,000 square feet."

Wellnitz is quick to share that she and her staff often hear the question of why a new site and new building would be needed, rather than simply expanding the existing building at its current location.

"Local zoning ordinances regarding parking are one reason," Wellnitz said. "For every 350 square feet of space added, a building must have 10 feet of parking -- equivalent to one parking space.

"What that means for this lot is that we could only add 7,000 square feet to the existing structure and still have room for the required parking -- but that only gets our total square footage up to 16,000 square feet, which isn't nearly enough."

In addition, an architectural assessment of the current building performed by Vetter Johnson Architects at the county board's request demonstrated the building's infrastructure would have to be drastically altered to support any meaningful remodeling effort -- and that would come at a price that makes an entirely new building seem less costly.

"Building up would require a whole new roof design, which would be in the millions of dollars, and we would still be left without enough square feet to meet the needs of our service population," Wellnitz explained.

"We are trying to work within a reasonable budget."

When the War Memorial Building was new in 1962, computers were decades away from being a common utility item, most Nobles County residents were primary English speakers, VHS tapes, CDs and DVDs were not yet on the scene, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 did not dictate certain accessibility requirements -- and another 50 years' worth of books and other traditional library materials had yet to accumulate.

"This building has served us well and can easily serve another entity well in the future," Wellnitz said. "But we have storage issues, plus we cannot accommodate many modern-day programs and presenters -- the space, the SMART Boards, the computer labs.

"Our adult programming is minimal because we simply don't have the ability within our facility, both in meeting room space and contemporary technologies, to accommodate that, and we could do so much more for language learners with headphones and microphones in a lab situation -- but we have no private study carrel area, and no larger public meeting room for adults or kids."

Last Thursday and Friday, children's librarian Jackie Van Horsen organized three different two-hour "Haunted House" programs for K-5 students on their Education Minnesota break. Dozens of children attended, crowding into a space meant to hold a much smaller number of people.

"We have 30 to 50 kids in here for programs two to three days of every week throughout the school year in a space that can more comfortably handle about 15 kids," Wellnitz said.

"If we were a business with 400 people coming in our doors daily, we'd be thrilled, but it makes everything more complicated, both for the staff and our patrons," she continued.

"We assist the neediest in our population, whether that's helping them fill out online job applications, working with the government on Visa questions or toll-free calls, and with over 60 percent of District 518 school children on free and reduced lunches, it's clear we fill a real need for students, as well."

Indeed, the Nobles County Library logs the highest counts for numbers of children served in its programs of all 25 libraries in the nine-county Plum Creek Library System consortium. That entity is also seeking to house its offices within the new Nobles County Library space, adding to the desirability for a new facility.

A 2011 survey conducted by the Labovitz School of Business and Finance at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, found that 91.3 percent of Minnesotans supported either maintaining or increasing funding for public libraries, and that over 5.5 million people are served by Minnesota's public libraries.

"They also learned that for every $1 in public investment in libraries, there was a $4.62, real-money gain," confirmed Wellnitz. "That doesn't count the social return, either."

For all of these reasons, Wellnitz is eager to see plans for a new Nobles County Library move forward.

Said Wellnitz, "We want to give Nobles County residents the best library experience and service possible, and I believe a new facility is the key to making that happen."