A New Chapter

Nancy Edmonds Hanson

Moorhead Library director Megan Krueger.

Will 2022 be the year the Moorhead Public Library gets a new home?

Long recognized, the need to replace the 60-year-old facility at 118 Fifth Street South has been under intense discussion for the past year. “We’ve been exploring options for a new library for the past year,” director Megan Krueger says. Working with the Twin Cities-based Library Strategies Consulting Group, they have been talking with library users about what they’d like to see in a reimagined facility.

Meanwhile, a task force appointed this fall by Mayor Shelly Carlson has been investigating the possibilities in a broader context. Their vision: a combined library and community center that would include not only a modern, welcoming library but also meeting rooms and amenities that would fill Moorhead’s need for more gathering spaces and facilities.

The library director notes that shortcomings of the present city-owned building – which also houses the offices of the Lake Agassiz Regional Library system – have been recognized since 2017, when Moorhead conducted a facilities condition assessment. “This building was rated ‘red’ for serious deficiencies,” she says. They include widespread problems with the plumbing, electrical system, HVAC and roof.

Research among members of the community pointed out other areas in which it comes up short, from inadequate space for children’s and youth programs to the need for more study areas, meeting rooms and a brighter, more welcoming environment. Nearly 1,000 local residents responded to the online survey; others took part in meetings with the consulting group. They, too, assessed the facility from a professional point of view.

While the pandemic brought restrictions on in-person use, the library in the past has drawn perhaps surprising numbers of users of all ages – “700 on a typical day, up to a thousand or so when it’s really busy,” Megan says. Those numbers have been recovering nicely since the easing of COVID restrictions on in-person visits.

With the return to more normal traffic, one of the central needs has grown apparent: More space. “Our two downstairs meeting rooms hosted 42 groups and 482 people in November 2019,” she says. Last month, 30 groups were back, drawing 200 attendees; that number is expected to return to the previous level when the pandemic eases. Those rooms are smallish. The library staff removed two aisles of books several years ago to carve out the main-floor area where candidate forums and author talks draw larger numbers.

Libraries, Megan notes, serve a far wider range of purposes than they did in years gone by. She cites wifi and internet access and public computers that patrons use for research, job searches and simply communicating with friends and relatives. Ten new Chromebooks with video capability are being added for in-library use to allow patrons to conduct job interviews and attend meetings via Zoom.

“When we reopened our computers by appointment in 2020 after three months of being closed, one person told me it was the first time she’d been able to contact anyone outside her household,” she says. “For some people, this is the only place they have access.”

Three hurdles stand in the way of making firmer plans for the library’s future. The first was crossed during this year’s session of the Minnesota Legislature, when legislators gave the city permission to put a sales tax proposal up for a vote; it would fund development of the library/community center.

Two remain. The next: The city council must decide whether to put the funding measure on the next election ballot. If the council approves the measure, it would lead to the biggest challenge – passing the measure in November.

“We know our community overwhelmingly supports a new facility,” Megan observes. “In my dreams, I’d like to remain downtown in a high-traffic, high-visibility location.” The location that survey respondents favored was the old Herberger’s building. With the future of the entire Center Mall up in the air, however, that may not be a practical option.

One thing she does know is how important the library is to the community it serves. “We’ve seen that in many ways these last two years, with the pandemic forcing us to think of creative ways to keep providing our services. We matter to people! We need to be open.

“Libraries have changed a great deal over the years, but our mission never will. This library is all about access. Formats and services shift and evolve over time, but the need for what we provide is constant.”

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