By Jo Mathis
When most communities want to build a new and bigger library, taxpayers are asked to approve a bond. In Hastings, the people decided to skip that step and raise the money themselves. All $5.2 million of it.
“It’s absolutely remarkable,” said Library Administrator Evelyn Holzwarth, who oversees an annual budget of $770,000 in this west Michigan community.
Twelve years ago, the old 4,500-square-foot library located in the former post office building was far too cramped, staff said. The population was growing, and there was precious little space to provide necessary services.
Susan Smith, a member of the steering committee and assistant librarian at the time, said the idea of putting a bond to a vote of the people was never considered, especially when consultants assured them it was doable via grants and donations alone.
“There were people who doubted we could raise money, and for a while it was stalled,” said Smith. “But I never lost faith in the volunteers. This is probably one of the most generous communities I’ve ever lived in, and I’ve lived in a lot of places.”
It took nearly 10 years from the feasibility study to the grand opening in 2007, and nothing about it was easy, she said.
Countless fundraisers, in addition to grants and several large private donations, brought the total to $3 million by the summer of 2005.
Then came the offer that made all the difference. One anonymous donor offered to match $4 for every one dollar others donated – all the way up to $2 million.
“The community went crazy,” said Hemerling.
On the last day of the three-month challenge, donors were lined up down the sidewalk. Smith, who is president of The Friends of the Hastings Public Library, recalled one boy who was holding a Pringles can full of change he’d raised in a garage sale.
“That whole summer was incredible,” she said. “It kind of gave you goose bumps. That’s what made it such a joy. Everybody was involved.”
The new downtown library, built with environmentally friendly features, is a light-filled building with plenty of room for everyone, staff say.
“Since we moved into this building, usage has gone up at least 50 percent,” said Peggy Hemerling, youth services librarian. “We used to have six computers for the public. We now have 24.”
In addition, the entire collection has grown. There is now space for programming. Restrooms are accessible. And teenagers finally have their own section.
The library serves a population of 13,033, including the city of Hastings, and the townships of Hastings and Rutland.
It’s rare for a community to raise enough money for a new library building, said Gretchen Couraud, executive director of the Michigan Library Association.
But Couraud predicts that people more and more will be asked to support their local libraries as state funds decrease.
“Our survey results show that behind police and fire, our libraries are right up there in terms of critical services for citizens,” she said. “So they will support their libraries with philanthropic dollars. Libraries will always be dependent on local property taxes, but their funds at the state level were cut 40 percent last year, and they will be looking at alternatives in the future.”
Many libraries have friends’ groups that will expand what they do to raise money beyond book sales, Couraud predicted.
According to the American Library Association’s annual report last year, U.S. libraries experienced a 10 percent increase in visits and check-outs in 2007 compared to 2001, but public funding did not keep pace with use.
In Hastings, the same kind of support that built the new library is evident today as taxpayers easily approved a recent operational millage.
“I think they see the library as improving the quality of life,” said Holzwarth. “There’s a lot of pride that they built it themselves.”
“It’s not just books,” said Smith. “It’s a community gathering place.”