Taxes and Capital Projects: A Conversation with the Division of Local Services

By Andrea Bunker, Library Construction Specialist at the MBLC

Taxes: one of the known inevitable’s in life, and in Massachusetts, a subject with a complicated and storied past. Therefore, it is no surprise that advocates of public library building projects often must address whether or not capital improvements will cause an increase in property taxes for residents. For this episode of Building Literacy, we went to the experts on municipal finance and taxation: The Department of Revenue’s Division of Local Services (DLS). With both regulatory and educational functions, the DLS not only provides oversight but also educational opportunities for municipal finance officials. Their Senior Deputy Commissioner, Sean Cronin, converses with us about the basics and what every municipal official, library building project stakeholder, and resident should know.

This episode is more Massachusetts-focused than many of our others, due in part to the local tax landscape defined by Proposition 2 ½, a property tax reform initiative passed by the voters in 1980. Mr. Cronin discusses the tools and mechanisms available to municipalities within the parameters of Prop 2 ½, such as overrides, debt exclusions, bonding, and stabilization funds. In addition to the basics, we touch upon capital plans and forecasting, even amidst a pandemic. Throughout, he also offers resources that are available through the DLS website: www.mass.gov/DLS.

So, if you think taxes are a dry subject (with the exception of the Boston Tea Party,) you may want to check out this episode! As always, if you have any questions, comments, or suggestions for future episode topics, please email me at Andrea.Bunker@mass.gov.

Library Space During the Pandemic and Beyond

By Lauren Stara and Andrea Bunker, Library Building Specialists at the MBLC

Libraries all over the world are striving to satisfy the needs of their patrons during this pandemic, some in buildings and spaces that were inadequate prior to these unprecedented times. The staff of the Massachusetts Public Library Construction Program have been working to help librarians navigate their physical space needs and address pandemic related changes that may continue beyond these difficult times.

Last month, in collaboration with Sasaki, we released Library Space: A Planning Resource for Librarians, a planning tool that creates a formal set of best practices for designing library space that may be applied to libraries across the nation. The guide empowers librarians, administrators, space planners, and architects with tools for the planning and design of public library buildings. Early in December, we added a 4-page Pandemic Addendum, which aims to capture the knowledge and lessons learned from experts and practitioners who have been in the trenches of pandemic library services.

On December 10, 2020, we held a virtual “guided tour” of the document, to introduce the concepts and answer questions. We had representation from all types of libraries, – public, academic, and special, and librarians participated from all over the country, including from Georgia, Oregon, and Hawaii. The questions were thought-provoking, and many were focused on the Pandemic Addendum – not surprising since we’re all focused on the potential for lasting changes in the wake of COVID-19.

The core tenet of the main document, though, holds true in the addendum as well: planning with flexibility in mind.

Library services are changing and evolving at an astonishing rate, and bricks-and-mortar buildings are often not designed to keep up. This reality was spotlighted in 2020, as library buildings closed and later reopened with limited services and often jury-rigged barriers and pathways. Librarians improvised quarantine procedures for collections and figured out how to circulate materials with as little physical contact as possible. While we know the pandemic will end, we predict there are some services and considerations that will continue indefinitely:

  1. Curbside is here to stay: It’s so convenient for patrons that we don’t think the public will let us stop it. We need to modify or plan new buildings to accommodate amenities such as outdoor pickup lockers and walk-up or drive-through service points.
  2. Outdoor programming: We need to maximize the potential for activities that take advantage of fresh air when weather permits. Even in bad weather, an outdoor area with a roof and/or portable exterior heaters can work for library services just as well as for restaurants.
  3. Attention to HVAC and indoor air quality: Virus transmission is enabled by stagnant indoor air. We think new and renovated buildings will pay much closer attention to the design of their mechanical systems, and existing buildings should assess and upgrade their ventilation and filtration where possible.
  4. Furniture choices: While we look to hospital-grade furniture now, we think there will be a revolution in materials for furniture in the next few years, to increase the ability to clean and disinfect easily.

Many aspects of library design will remain the same, regardless of these extraordinary circumstances. Please visit the MBLC’s website to download both the main pdf and the Pandemic Addendum, or to view Library Space via ISSUU.

Designing Pandemic-Ready Libraries

By Andrea Bunker, Library Building Specialist at the MBLC

As the doors of libraries begin to open to welcome patrons amidst this new normal of pandemic living, agonizing and costly decisions have been discussed, weighed, and decided. Re-opening plans have been carefully crafted and vetted by boards of health, municipalities, and library trustees. There are no easy considerations. There are no roadmaps. There is only ever-evolving information as research efforts try to keep pace with the spread of the virus. “Designing Libraries for a Pandemic”, the newest episode of “Building Literacy: Public Library Construction”, which is available now for download or streaming, tackles issues related to library design during COVID-19 and beyond, recognizing that there are no steadfast answers.

We convened a virtual roundtable of architects from several of the firms who design buildings for libraries that partake in the Massachusetts Public Library Construction Program. Some have projects that have recently opened; some have projects under construction; and some have projects currently in the design stage. No project remains as it was pre-pandemic. Each firm leads discussion on a design topic affected by COVID-19, including circulation patterns, furniture design, small vs. large rooms, exterior spaces, flexibility vs, separation, safety and security, bathrooms, HVAC, and long-term impacts. This esteemed and knowledgeable group discusses changes they are considering and have made, given the most up-to-date information available.

It is important to note that information about COVID-19 and its transmission and behavior is ever-evolving. The discussion of safety measures in this episode are based on research and guidance up until August 4, 2020. We cannot know what further pertinent information will arise in subsequent weeks, months, or years, but we will strive to update this episode to include new information and guidance gleaned from ongoing research in the late fall or early winter.

Over the past five months, we have witnessed you, our talented and dedicated library community, alter spaces, redesign rooms, install protective barriers, create new pathways around your buildings, catapult virtual programming to new heights, and implement procedures to maximize the safety of staff and patrons. You have adapted and changed to provide important library services. While we share with you the thoughtful perspectives of design professionals in this episode, always remember that it is your experience and your expertise in serving your communities that inform library design. We remain in awe of your ability to pivot, the action that defines this year and this decade so far. Thank you for listening.

New Season of Construction Podcast: Looking to the Past in an Uncertain Present

By Andrea Bunker, Library Building Specialist at the MBLC

Thank you for helping the Massachusetts Public Library Construction Program’s (MPLCP) podcast “Building Literacy: Public Library Construction” reach close to 450 downloads!

In our second season, we look to our past- wisdom from former library building specialists, a primer on the history of the MPLCP, and our response to a 105-year-old speech about faults commonly found in Massachusetts libraries constructed during that era. A common thread weaves through all these episodes: although time ticks forward and technology and building materials evolve, human behavior, attitudes, and resilience remain consistent.

As we look to the future of library design and construction, the best way to develop a responsive plan is to truly understand all that has preceded and influenced our present. Patience Jackson and Rosemary Waltos provide us with a well-rounded perspective of the design challenges and construction errors they encountered during their years as library building consultants for the agency in “Words of Wisdom.” They follow up this advice with an in-depth conversation about the origins and evolution of the MPLCP, which has weathered many economic storms in its 30-year existence, in “The History of the Massachusetts Public Library Construction Program.”

While recording the first two episodes of season two, Patience called our attention to a speech from 1915 that exists in our files. The writer and speaker was Alice G. Chandler who, in addition to being a Trustee at the Lancaster Public Library, made advisory visits to libraries across the Commonwealth for the Free Public Library Commission, critiquing everything from their buildings to their cataloging systems. In her speech, which our colleague Liz Babbitt reads in its entirety at the end of the episode, “Some Things Never Change,” Ms. Chandler relays the numerous concerns related to recently constructed library buildings throughout Massachusetts. As library building specialists, we were taken aback by how relevant and true her statements remain. Therefore, we discuss the similarities between our common comments today and those made 105 years ago. We don’t cover every aspect of planning, design, and construction, but we hope you find some useful information for your own project.

The first few episodes of season three are forthcoming. We recently zoomed with several architects who design public libraries in the Commonwealth and beyond to learn more about pandemic-related changes they are contemplating and any lasting ramifications in their work on libraries. We have also begun collecting the building project stories of Directors and Trustees who have recently completed new or renovated and expanded libraries or lost their votes to secure approval. We plan to have topical episodes including issues like advocacy, fundraising, building committees, and much more, integrating these narratives from both successful and unsuccessful (for now!) projects.

As always, if you have any suggestions for future episode topics, please email me at andrea.bunker@mass.gov. We hope you learn as much from listening to each one of the episodes as we do creating them.

The Massachusetts Public Library Construction Program is pausing offering new awards for FY2021

By Lauren Stara, Library Building Specialist at the MBLC

Because of the uncertainty with municipal budgets brought on by COVID-19, the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners has decided not to award any new provisional grants in the Massachusetts Public Library Construction Program (MPLCP) in Fiscal Year 2021.

A “provisional” grant means that a municipality has been awarded an MPLCP grant and has six months to secure the required local funds that make up the balance of project costs. A contract with the MBLC cannot be executed without this funding in place.

The two libraries that were scheduled for provisional grants in FY21 were East Bridgewater Public Library and the Jones Library in Amherst. These two libraries remain at the top of the waiting list and will be offered provisional grants in FY22. Please see the FY21 Construction Grant FAQ for more information.

This pause in the awarding of new grants will not affect the overall time frame of the waiting list. The projects that were originally scheduled for grants in FY22 will likely be delayed for one year, but subsequent years won’t be affected. As projects are being completed and final payments made on libraries going back to the 2010 grant round, as well as the grants awarded in 2017, we have eight grants that will be retired in FY21 and FY22. This frees up room in the annual cap for new projects.

The timing of grant awards is always in flux, because of two main factors:

  • The annual capital budget allotted to us in a given fiscal year by the Department of Administration and Finance may be the same as the previous year, but it may be increased or decreased. Each year we must cover payments to all the projects in process before awarding new grants.
  • The ability of municipalities higher on the waiting list to secure their local funds is unknown. If a project fails at Town Meeting, City Council, or an override vote, the grant funds from that project then become available to projects down the list. This means we move through the list more quickly. Even times of economic stability, we see a drop-out rate of about 25% in our waiting lists; in difficult economic times, historically the drop-out rate has been higher.

We will not have any trouble spending our annual cap this year because we can give partial payments to three projects farther down on the waiting list that have already started or completed construction. Note that this does not mean that these projects move to the top of the list.

The scheduling of grant awards is extremely complicated, and I encourage anyone with questions about this to contact me at lauren.stara@mass.gov. The mission of the MPLCP is to improve library services throughout the Commonwealth by improving library facilities, and there’s nothing we like more than successful projects. The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted everything, and we hope that this pause will help everyone, including ourselves, to move forward.

Building Literacy: Public Library Construction Podcast

COVID-19 has caused all of us to shift operations and services to meet the needs of those we serve, and, for the MBLC’s Massachusetts Public Library Construction Program, that means moving our in-person workshops and site visits to the digital realm. As such, we, the Construction Team, would like to introduce you to our new endeavor: the “Building Literacy: Public Library Construction” podcast, in which we will explore all topics relevant to the entire construction process.

The first two episodes replace our Sustainability Summit, a summit geared toward anyone seeking to incorporate sustainability into a major building upgrade or a partial or whole building project. In episode one, “Sustainability and Building Performance: An Interview with Building Evolution Corporation”, we talk with Building Evolution Corporation’s (BEC) Wesley Stanhope, BEC’s Founder and CEO, and Ken Neuhauser, BEC’s President, about practical steps you can take to plan for and implement partial and whole-building projects that achieve energy goals while not compromising on other aspects of building performance.

In episode two, “Designing for Sustainability: An Interview with Finegold Alexander Architects”, we discuss how architects approach the integration of sustainable measures within the design process to reduce energy load and usage and how it impacts project budgets in an interview with Finegold Alexander Architects’ Ellen Anselone, Rebecca Berry, Josephine Penta, and Beth Pearcy. We encourage anyone with even a thought of undertaking any building project of any scale to listen to these episodes, as sustainability goals must be identified early and remain a priority throughout the process.

The podcast is  also a response to substantial feedback we received about  our program. It was clear that stakeholders in public library construction projects are seeking as much in-depth information and as many mentorship opportunities as possible throughout the process. An interview-based podcast seemed like a logical mechanism in which to deliver these resources, as listeners can access the episodes as the topics arise in their own building project trajectory.

In future episodes, we hope to cover everything from advocacy and fundraising to what to expect a year after your new and improved public library opens. If you have questions stemming from an existing episode, specific topic suggestions for other episodes, or if you have participated in our program and would like to be interviewed for a mentorship and lessons learned episode, please contact Library Building Specialist Andrea Bunker at andrea.bunker@state.ma.us

In this podcast, companies and firms are and will be featured, sharing their expertise and knowledge with library building project stakeholders in an effort to create a better, more informed experience. In no way does the featuring of these companies or firms on this podcast constitute an endorsement or a promotion of those companies or firms by the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners. These interviews are meant to serve as an educational resource only.

The MBLC Welcomes Andrea Bunker!

Andrea Bunker started at the MBLC on December 6 as our new Library Building Specialist. She will be working closely with Lauren Stara to administer the very successful Massachusetts Public Library Construction Program.

Andrea comes to us from Woburn Public Library, where she was Director since 2016. She’s been spending most of her time on the WPL’s addition and renovation, which is slated to reopen in February. Her experience will be especially helpful to libraries planning renovations to historic buildings – the Woburn Public Library is a National Historic Landmark and was the first library designed by HH Richardson, who became well known for public libraries. Prior to Woburn, she participated in a space planning project for the Newburyport Public Library where she served first as the Teen Librarian and then as Senior Librarian for Reference.

She holds an MLIS from the University of Rhode Island and a BA in English and Secondary Education from Northeastern University.

Andrea “looks forward to working with libraries throughout the Commonwealth in creating spaces that foster lifelong learning, assist residents in pursuing their goals, and strengthen connections within communities.”

Please join us in welcoming Andrea to this crucial role!

A Must Read for Library Construction

By MBLC Library Building Specialist Lauren Stara

Every once in a while, a book comes along that is packed with so much good information that you want to share it with everyone. In this case, that means everyone who is planning a library construction project.

The Practical Handbook of Library Architecture: Creating Building Spaces that Work by Fred Schlipf and John A Moorman (ALA, 2018) is the book.

To be honest, it’s a little intimidating at nearly 1,000 pages, but don’t let that stop you. The authors are librarians who have decades of experience with library design and construction from the librarian’s point of view, and they’ve put it all down in black and white with humor and style. Chapter Two is entitled “More than Two Hundred Snappy Rules for Good and Evil in Library Architecture” – need I say more?

Topics run the gamut from the 10,000 foot view (overviews of the design and construction processes) to the granular (the wording for the plaque that goes in the lobby), and everything in between. There’s even a chapter called “Evaluating Library Buildings by Walking Around” that’s great for assessing an existing facility. You can see from the photo that I started flagging important passages, but after a few chapters I had to stop because I was running out of flags.

This is a book that former MBLC Construction Specialist Patience Jackson could have written, for those of you who know her. It’s the book I wish I had written, with a few minor exceptions – the information is unrelentingly practical, and I admit that my training as an architect rears its head at times. One example: the section on page 103 where the authors rail against what they call “designer staircases.” I do love a dramatic stairway.

You can download the Table of Contents and the “Two Hundred Snappy Rules” in PDF for free from the ALA Editions website. This is not an inexpensive book, but we are in the process of ordering two more copies to circulate for our professional collection. Contact Lauren Stara if you have any questions.

Public Libraries in Massachusetts: An Evolving Ecosystem

After over a year of hard work, we have completed our “Evolving Ecosystem” report with Watertown based design and planning firm Sasaki and help from Massachusetts library patrons and staff who filled out our statewide survey last summer.

The study was initiated and funded by the construction program, so that was the focus. We went in with a few goals:

  1. To come up with a set of best practices for library design – a set of guidelines to help us understand the requirements of contemporary library buildings
  2. To take the first steps in formulating a way for the Massachusetts Public Library Construction Program to help improve library facilities in the state’s very small libraries
  3. To understand where and how some libraries serve as de-facto resource locations for surrounding communities, and how that might affect building size requirements

After the Your Voice Your Library surveys last summer and a deep dive into the ARIS dataset, Sasaki produced a written report and an interactive website that’s helping us understand how important the cooperative system we have in Massachusetts is, and start to look as how this information might help shape the ecosystem in the future. It’s also become clear that this report is valuable to everyone in the MBLC and in libraries across the state – not just the construction program.

This is only the beginning of the process, though. We are now in the process of gathering responses and feedback from the library community, to help us determine what we do with this data, and we want to hear from you! As of this writing, there are still two more community meetings, scheduled on July 10 in Tewksbury and July 17 in Plymouth. We are also looking for volunteers for a statewide Ecosystem committee to guide us in where we go from here.

Take a look at the website at https://mblc.state.ma.us/ecosystem  and use the contact form there for your input, or you can email us at ecosystem@mblc.state.ma.us. We want your thoughts! You can learn more about the study here.

A Guide to Town Meetings

This is a guest post from Patrick Borezo, Director of the Goodwin Memorial Library in Hadley

In November of 2017 voters in Hadley, Massachusetts let their voices be heard at the ballot box.  Hadley had made the historic decision to accept nearly four million dollars from the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners and to allocate the balance of funds needed to construct a new library. The Goodwin Memorial Library, constructed in 1902, would be replaced with a single story, fully accessible facility with greatly improved parking, collection capacity, and meeting space.

Hadley is a community of roughly 5,250 people with a town meeting form of government. Because town meetings are attended by a minority of residents the committee felt that it needed to mobilize between 300 and 500 supporters to deliver the needed two-thirds majority. This would be especially important in case of an organized opposition. The Committee’s Get Out the Vote strategy for both the special town meeting and ballot vote emphasized one-to-one communication between neighbors, particularly those who were likely to support the library. The use of attendance lists from previous Town Meetings was crucial in this process as it identified those who were already likely to attend based on previous behavior. GOTV volunteers attended brief strategy meetings and were each asked to contact ten to twenty residents who were seen as likely to support the library project. Volunteers asked each person contacted whether they would likely attend the special town meeting on the specified date and if the answer was affirmative they were also asked how many others from their household were likely to attend.  This effort worked as a running head count, but also as a way to gently remind likely supporters of the town meeting and its relevance to the library project if they were not already aware.

Additional efforts included a number of supportive letters to the editor of the local newspaper as well as several press releases that resulted in media coverage of the special town meeting. A small run of lawn signs (underwritten by the Friends of the Library) was distributed to the homes of supporters in the week leading up to special town meeting.

The special Town Meeting held on August 29th was attended by nearly 500 residents putting the hall at full capacity.  Some twenty to thirty people participated from the hallway which was used for overflow from the main room.  Roughly a dozen members of the public spoke articulately and passionately in support of the article from the floor. The final vote was 449 in favor with 28 opposed. The nearly unanimous sea of hands held up to vote “yes” was a powerful affirmation of the importance of the library and the services that it provides to this community.

The successful result at Special Town Meeting sent the borrowing question to a town-wide ballot on November 14, 2017.  The strategy for the vote was similar to the lead-up to Town Meeting, with the majority of effort going to reactivating those in attendance in August. Additionally, a town-wide mailing was undertaken and paid for by the Friends of the Library.  These postcards were mailed to every active postal address in town, rather than targeting supporters only. As in August, lawn signs were created with the slogan “Our Community, Our Library”.

Again, the operative assumption was that participation in the ballot vote would represent a minority of Hadley’s total population. To succeed at the ballot a simple majority is needed rather than two-thirds majority.  Ultimately 1,157 votes were cast.  683 in favor and 470 opposed (with four left blank).

Looking back over a process that began in earnest in the Spring of 2014 when Hadley accepted the MBLC’s Planning & Design Grant I have taken several lessons from our journey so far.  Most of these may seem like common sense, but I think they are all worth repeating.

  • Know your community, but don’t buy into all of its conventional wisdom.

We have all heard from community members who, claiming to know it very well, believe that it can never change.  This is especially true when there are memorable instances from the past where a divisive issue led to a bitter defeat for an important project.  Every campaign happens in its own context.  In being offered something worth the effort and risk each community has the opportunity to follow a new direction and write a new chapter. And who knows, perhaps the community that we thought we knew so well has changed a bit more than we anticipated.

  • Say, “Yes” as often as it is possible and practical to do so.

The early stages of planning are a great time to paint with a broad brush and think big.  An important part of building consensus is to hear from the community about what they think should be included in such a transformative project.  I was often surprised by how important the functional aspects of the proposed library were to residents who engaged with the planning process.  Would we have a green building? Can the Children’s Room be situated so as to contain noise and maximize safety? What about accessing the meeting rooms after hours? These kinds of questions arose far more than those relating to the appearance of the building, for instance. People could see the possibilities in the new library and asked us to consider many suggestions, some more practical than others.  As often as we could we said “Yes” in terms of at least considering any idea brought to us. Some of these ideas might not make it into the final plan, but all ideas were considered important enough to merit consideration. And if that “Yes” must ultimately become a “No” there would be a solid rationale to back up the decision.

  • Build consensus through transparency.

It is amazing what you can learn about yourself or the things you are working on “through the grapevine”. Scuttlebutt is a natural and unavoidable aspect of anything political.  Decisions made out in the open will be questioned rigorously, fairly or unfairly, but when the perception is that important decision-making is being made behind closed doors then trouble is sure to follow.  A savvy opponent will use any procedural mistakes made by a committee to undermine public confidence and slow down the process.  Always follow open meeting law and advertise meetings as widely as possible. Provide information as quickly and completely as possible, even when it is to someone working against your project, as is your obligation.  At the end of the day it’s the integrity of the process that matters and those in the community who are objectively on the fence may well be swayed by that integrity to help write a new chapter.