Sitka Library settles in at new digs

It’s official: the contractor handed off the keys to the newly renovated Sitka Public Library this week, and the Sitka Library Commission moved right in.

Commissioners held their first public meeting in the new facility last Wednesday, Jan. 6. They listened to plans for moving the entire contents of the Kettleson Library into the much larger building — the 14th time Sitkans have moved their library in modern history.

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Librarian Brooke Schafer begins unpacking reference books. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)
Librarian Brooke Schafer begins unpacking reference books. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)

 

Bill Foster is working on a display for the grand opening of the Sitka Public Library. He wants to enlarge a map of Sitka, and mark the 13 previous locations of the library.

It turns out you just can’t Google this information.

“I went all over town to the city building trying to get a map, and guess where the map was that we needed? In the library!” he laughs.

Library commissioners hoped that this would be the last library move in their lifetimes, and some of them had seen plenty.

Former assembly member Alice Johnstone has been on the commission for nine years, but her history in Sitka goes back to the mid-20th Century.

“The library was in the federal building when I came to town,” she recalls.

Shewa Bryner roams the shelves and tries out the view. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)
Shewa Bryner roams the shelves and tries out the view. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)

That’s where City Hall is these days.

“Then it was in the new high school, which is the building on Baranof Street.”

And that building has since been remodeled into the new Pacific High.

This project should serve Sitka for some time to come. It’s actually the second expansion of the old Kettleson Library. This time, contractors increased the size of the structure by 60 percent, or about 4,600 square feet, and remodeled the entire building from top-to-bottom: There’s wi-fi, expanded meeting space, a larger childrens room, bathrooms worthy of a public building, better offices and work areas for the librarians.

And it came in under budget.

“Sitka got a fantastic facility for a very bargain rate,” says library director Robb Farmer.

Farmer replaced Sarah Bell, who spearheaded much of the fundraising for the $6 million renovations. Between state grants and private donations, Sitka spent $500,000 of its own money on the project. Farmer interviewed for the job the day Kettleson Library opened in its temporary quarters on the Sheldon Jackson campus, almost two years ago.

Library commissioner Jane Eidler explores the stacks of the soon-to-be-filled Sitka Public Library. (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)
Library commissioner Jane Eidler explores the stacks of the soon-to-be-filled Sitka Public Library. (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

Although there’s not a single book in the new Sitka Public Library yet, Farmer finally has his reality check.

“It’s a fabulous facility. It took a while for me to figure out exactly how it was going to be, because I don’t understand plans very well, and I wasn’t involved in the planning stages at all. But seeing it live shows me how much we have to offer and how fortunate I am to be here, and how fortunate Sitka is to have this fantastic place.”

Farmer wasn’t in on the relocation of the library to Stratton, but he’ll be overseeing the move back. Volunteers will start transporting books back this week. Soon, they’ll ramp up to two trips a day in a panel van. The library will be closed for  a full month to get things into shape, including the installation of new computers and other information technology systems. A grand opening is planned for sometime around February 1.

With a huge, orange sign outside, commissioners agree that there will be no mistaking the purpose of the renovated building. Traffic flow, in summertime especially, sometimes grew congested in the entryway of the old Kettleson. That problem has been eliminated, along with the old name.

Bill Foster says ‘Sitka Public Library’ reaches far deeper into the community’s history, than the name Kettleson. And Kettleson will not be forgotten.

“There will be books in this library with ‘Sitka Public Library.’ Anything pre-1967. It’s not hard to find them. I looked the other day. Those will fit right in, and we’re not remarking the newer books. The name Kettleson will live on for a long, long time.”

As the meeting wraps up and we head to the entrance, Foster points out a red plastic tube — it looks a little like playground equipment — that is a special feature of the childrens room. It’s going to be an alcove, but right now it looks  a little like a dog door — for kids.

Bill Foster demonstrates for Alice Johnstone a special feature of the children’s room — as only he can. (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)
Bill Foster demonstrates for Alice Johnstone a special feature of the children’s room — as only he can. (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

“And in fact, in Kodiak they sometimes lock the door for children’s programs and the parents have to go around and the kids all have to crawl through.”

But after four years of planning and construction, no locked door for adults is going to keep Sitka’s hearty library commissioners out of any part of their new building.

I ask if Foster is tempted to crawl in. I offer to take his picture. He obliges and we both laugh.

And with that, history is made twice in the same day at Sitka’s Public Library: First public meeting in our newest public space, and first child-at-heart in the childrens room.