Floods, power failures and elevator woes: Belmont Public Library needs a new home

by Ellen Schreiber

What do floods, scorching heat, and power failures have in common?

These emergencies (and more) have all happened in the Belmont Public Library in the last nine months. Every month or two, the Library Trustees get a call. Something else has broken.

“We do everything we can to avoid shutting down the building,” said Peter Struzziero, Director of Belmont Public Library. “But sometimes, it can’t be avoided. We can’t ask the library staff and patrons to be in 100-degree indoor temperatures.”

Frequent building failures jeopardize the future of the Belmont Public Library. Pictured above (l to r): plumbing, electrical system, air conditioning.

The library was built in 1965 and most of the systems are original to the building. The failures read like a laundry list.

  • The electrical system is overloaded.
  • The roof leaks.
  • The HVAC fails.
  • Pipes crack.
  • The boiler room floods.
  • People get trapped in the elevator.
  • The windows are rotting.
  • The fire alarm system is at the end of its useful life.

“It’s a miracle the building is still functioning,” said Kathy Keohane, vice-chair of the Belmont Board of Library Trustees and member of the Belmont Library Building Committee. “The building has been heading downhill for more than 20 years. But at that time, nearly all buildings in town needed to be renovated or replaced, and the library was in better shape than most.”

“Not anymore,” she added. “This is urgent.”

Struzziero shared a cautionary tale. “The last thing we do at night is check that no one is stuck in the elevator, make sure that the fire alarm system is still communicating with fire headquarters, and look to see that everything is ok in the boiler room. And still, I worry about what crises I might face the next morning.”

Over the last two decades, the town has commissioned three independent feasibility studies to examine the library building from top to bottom and create a plan forward. Every study reached the same conclusion – the building is a “bad candidate for renovation.”

“It’s not as simple as replacing a boiler, although we’ve done that,” said Keohane. “Every major system in the library has broken repeatedly and is well beyond end of life. If we replace the wiring, plumbing, roof, windows, HVAC, fire alarms, and the other antiquated systems, you are in for a major renovation. You must handle the asbestos and lead paint and bring everything up to code. You must make the building compliant with the American with Disabilities Act, which means replacing the undersized elevator and shaft, plus an extensive reconfiguration.”

“Renovation would cost tens of millions of dollars and result in a building with 25% less space for books, computers, meetings, and everything else we do at the library. As a Trustee, I have a duty to be a good steward of the library and town funds.  Renovation is not a rationale choice.”

She added: “A new building provides the best value for our community.”

That’s where the Belmont Library Foundation comes in. The foundation was created in 2004 to collect private donations to help fund a new building.

From September 20th to October 30th, the foundation is launching a fundraising and community drive called “Our Library Needs a New Home.” The project invites the community to participate in funding the solution.

“Our library is one of the only community spaces that is free for every Belmont resident,” said Marcie Schorr Hirsch, co-chair of the fundraising project. “It’s part of the DNA of our community. I can’t imagine Belmont without a library – that’s why I got involved.”

There is another reason to invest in the library – success.

“Belmont is one of the most heavily used public libraries in Massachusetts,” said Elaine Alligood, chair of the Board of Library Trustees. “The last year pre-covid, we were #10 in circulation in the state, right behind cities like Boston, Newton, and Cambridge.”

Libraries today are much more than book repositories. They are places for collaboration, classes, speakers, technology training for everyone, discussion groups, meetings, movies, toddler music, sewing machines, and more.

“And of course, community,” Alligood observed. “Residents rely on the library as a place to connect and be part of our community. During COVID, the library was a lifeline for many – from homebound delivery and curbside pickup to record-setting online programs and more – but nothing can replace being together. The new building will be a vibrant space that matches the energy of the activity inside.”

She added confidently: “Our library has a bright future.”

Hirsch explained that the foundation’s goal for the six-week, grass roots fundraising project is participation. “The library belongs to us all. We need the $1 and $10 donations as much as the $1,000 donations. Every person matters.”

To donate or for more information, visit www.NewLibraryFund.org.

This article appeared in the Belmont Citizen Herald © 2021, and can be found at this link.  Ellen Schreiber is a member of the board of the Belmont Library Foundation.