The Spark

A bright, open floor plan with interactive community spaces is featured as part of the Milton Public Library. The over $3 million renovation was funding largely through private donations. The renovated space was opened to the public in 2017.

Note: Following is a companion story to Making a comeback: Milton library fits with nationally identified trends

Looking back: making space

In Milton, professional library consultant and former Milton Library Board member and president Bill Wilson said, several factors helped facilitate transformation at the public library. Among them was a decision made to renovate new space for the Milton school district administration, moving its members, in 2012, from what is today the library building, then called the Shaw Community Center, to the former Milton College Daland Fine Arts Building, 448 E. High St., where they are housed today.

In 2014, city hall personnel moved from their location in the Shaw Community Building to the former Dean Care Clinic, which had stood vacant for several years on Janesville Street. The building was renovated to serve as the city’s police station and an addition was built to serve as city hall. 

Before the city and school district staffs moved out, Milton Public Library Director Ashlee Kunkel said, the library occupied the first floor of the building. When they left, the second floor became vacant, opening an opportunity for library expansion. 

Financing, too, became a mitigating factor, Wilson said, as both the fire department and the library board came forward to demonstrate need for city support. There was concern, he said, that city monies invested in library renovations, and borrowings to support any library renovation projects, would defer dollars, in both real funding and future borrowing capacity, from a new firehouse, which was also in need of attention. 

At the same time, the new Highway 26 bypass was under construction and there was concern that lost traffic might turn the city into a ghost town, Wilson said.  

The library board was able to make the argument that the library could, with a new design concept that embraced programming and community spaces, serve as an endpoint destination, attracting visitors into the city. The library board had also commissioned a study to determine cost estimates for the project, which, Wilson said, factored into the decision-making process. 

The library expansion was further along than a firehouse in the planning process, he said. 

The two-story library renovation ultimately cost just over $3 million. About $2.1 million was funded through private donations, Wilson said. Some $900,000 came through city funding. Donations came through pledges, he said, some of which are still being collected. After the project was completed, the city paid the outstanding renovation bills and the library board paid the city back as pledges were collected. 

To date, Kunkel said, the board still owes the city approximately $120,000. 

Looking ahead: refining programming

Today the library is in the process of making a new strategic plan. The current plan was adopted around 2009 or 2010, Wilson said. 

Wilson serves on the planning committee for the strategic plan. The goal is to produce a plan for the library that will cover 2020 to 2023. A strategic plan seeks to define future initiatives, he said, adding that a Department of Public Instruction (DPI) assessment is also underway, looking to understand how libraries are currently serving the public. 

Milton is well positioned to face the future, Wilson said, because even before there was renovated space, library staff was committed to developing community programs. 

“They saw that it was so important, that they were going to do that in spite of the facility. They said: ‘let’s begin to do it in our awful meeting room and make Maker kits that people can take home, and let’s push programs off site in the schools, at The Gathering Place and MAYC,’” Wilson said. 

Once the renovations were completed, those programs grew, giving the library the impetus needed to become a destination, he said.  

“The public library needs to be less like a grocery store and more like a kitchen,” Wilson said, sharing a concept he said he learned from Joan Frye Williams, a library consultant in California. Using the old library model, it was like a grocery store where you found ingredients displayed in a way that made them easy to locate, Wilson said. 

“The concept is that the kitchen is where you take your resources to create something new from them. That’s the new version of the library, and the future of libraries is to continue refining the trend,” he said. 

“The library is an intergenerational place, with groups broken into three categories: adults, teens and children. Today, the groups are being refined and further broken into six categories: preschool, older school-aged children, tweens, teens, adults and seniors. The success of the library will come through creating a range of programming for all those groups of people," Wilson said.

Programming with broad appeal across the groups, giving it further appeal as family programming, is another good step, he said. He cited the library's Makers room, called The Spark, as an example of family-oriented, hands-on programming. 

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