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Library goes top shelf; Despite economy, Athol places premium on books.

Byline: George Barnes

ATHOL -- In 2010, as the town struggled through some of the worst economic times since the Great Depression, voters approved renovation and expansion of its nearly 100-year-old library.

Library Director Debra A. Blanchard said the town was the poorest community on the state's list for building money, but did not hesitate to support the project.

"We voted our money before we knew we had the grant,'' Mrs. Blanchard said. "I think it sent a pretty good message.''

Athol received its grant and is now nearing the completion of an $8.5 million project that historically renovates the town's old Carnegie library and adds a modern, highly environmentally friendly addition.

Expanding the library over the past three years was much simpler process than when it was built in 1914. Around the turn of the century, industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie offered the town $15,000 to build a library. The town turned it down.

"They said they would not take money from that robber baron,'' Mrs. Blanchard said.

The town eventually did take $22,000 from the "robber baron'' and built a library that kept the town loaning books well into the era of Internet and e-books. The library sits on land leased to the town by businessman Laroy Starrett with a provision that the town always fund a library there. In the current project, L.S. Starrett Co. donated land near the Millers River to the library, donated $25,000 to the project and matched $50,000 in donations.

As part of the project, the old library is being renovated, including replacement of flooring cut from large beams removed from the Nichols and Stone furniture factory in Gardner when it was torn down to make way for a supermarket.

The renovation includes replacement of the front door with a mahogany reproduction of the original and restoration of one of the large windows that was removed to install an elevator years ago.

The new elevator is in the new section of the library along with many new and expanded facilities.

The first thing you see when you enter the library's addition is a lot of light with large windows opening up the back of the building to the outside world.

The project will include expansion of the library's stacks, a young adult section, youth library and even an Internet cafe where patrons can buy a coffee and sit and surf the Internet using the library's wireless services.

What patrons will see when they look out the large glass windows is a park that connects the library's parking lot with the town's signature natural attraction, the Millers River. The park will include places for people to sit, exercise and eventually, it is hoped, hike along the edge of the river from the library to the Athol Bird and Nature Club about a half mile west on Main Street.

The project has a clerk of the works, an architect, a construction firm and other consultants, but it also has Mrs. Blanchard, who said she has been working on it 12-14 hours per day, seven days per week to make sure everything goes to plan. She has spent so much work on the project her husband built her an office in their home as an anniversary present to allow her to continue working after hours.

The effort may seem a little like overkill, but Mrs. Blanchard said she needs to keep on top of things, including connecting the various parties if changes are needed.

"I see my job as not holding them up,'' she said.

Mrs. Blanchard even took classes at the start of the project to be a Massachusetts certified pubic procurement officer so she could keep better track of things.

The relationship between the general contracting company D.A. Sullivan and Sons of Northampton is very friendly, but Mrs. Blanchard said she does not hesitate raising issues when something is not built to plan. One of the items she is insisting gets changed is a fire alarm box installed where the Youth Library television is supposed to go.

The reason she insists on that change is the room was designed entirely by the library's Youth Advisory Committee, even the location of the television.

Unlike the old library, the Athol library will not be heated by an oil fired furnace. It will be heated and cooled by a technologically advanced heat exchange system that runs on electricity from solar panels that will be installed on the roof of the building in the spring.

The Athol Library project has been in the making since 2004 when it was decided the old building lacked modern infrastructure and was too crowded for the increasing demand for its services.

The new building will have several meeting spaces that will be open to the public, offer a new office for Literacy Volunteers of Orange/Athol, which is now in the basement of Town Hall and even two quiet study rooms where students can study isolated from the rest of the library or people who operate home businesses can go to meet with clients. Mrs. Blanchard said business owners are already meeting in the library and this would give them a better space to use.

Athol is not alone in Central Massachusetts looking to improve its library. In November, Shrewsbury voters approved a $23.3 million expansion of its library. Library Director Ellen Dolan said the projected date of the project is the spring of 2016. The vote reversed a 2011 rejection of the project.

Also, Webster is now at the top of the list for help in paying for its $11 million library project.

Below it at number 11 is Leic-ester, which is hoping to soon receive approval.

"The total project would be just over $8 million,'' said Library Director Suzanne Hall.

The town has received a grant to design the project, which is the first step. The library has already raised $2 million of the $3 million it needs for the town's share.

One recently completed project was the building of a new Pearl L. Crawford Memorial Library in Dudley at 40 Schofield Ave. The building opened in July 2010.

"It was a real concerted effort,'' said Library Director Karen E. Wall. "It was over 10 years in the making.''

Other communities have had to take small steps toward renovating their libraries. Fitchburg was on track to renovate its library five years ago when budget cuts resulted in the library losing its certification. Funding was restored in 2012 and the library is starting the process over with a feasibility study.

"We want to be ready for the next grant round for building construction in 2017-18,'' said Fitchburg library director Sharon Bernard.

Grafton does not expect to make the next grant round. Its plans for an $11.7 million renovation of its current library were halted in 2011 after voters rejected financing. Librarian Beth Gallaway said that since then the town has spent $500,000 for a lift to make the library handicapped accessible.

Contact George Barnes at Follow him on Twitter @georgebarnesTG
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Title Annotation:Local
Author:Barnes, George
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Dec 6, 2013
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