By Zach Neithercut
“Is my hair on fire?”
That’s what Flint Public Library Director Kay Schwartz says she blurts out these days to anybody asking how things are going.
Schwartz is at the helm of a complicated–and extremely rewarding–set of maneuvers as the 60-year-old library on Kearsley Street begins preparations for its massive makeover — a $27.6 million project to transform the aging facility from the inside out and create 16,000 of additional square feet.
“It will be a ‘like new’ library,” Schwartz has declared.
To make way for construction work on the upgrade, the library is moving to temporary quarters — at Courtland Center, 4190 E Court St, Burton. Saturday, Feb. 29 is the last day of service for now at Kearsley Street until August, 2021–a milestone being observed with a renovation kickoff party from noon to 4 p.m. Saturday.
The library will be closed for two months, with the Courtland Center location scheduled to open in May and renovation at Kearsley Street getting underway continuing through August, 2021, according to yournewFPL.org.
Courtland Center will offer the same services as Kearsley Street (getting/renewing a library card, children’s section, computer access, printer and photocopying, checking out material, genealogy). Parking will be available on either the north or south sides of the mall; public transportation includes MTA Bus #10, and hours and contact information will remain unchanged.
From construction projects for both buildings, to two additional storage locations, to final design decisions, even to the kind of paper towel holders planned for remodeled rooms, Schwartz is handling something like three-dimensional chess.
Public support for library renovation made it happen
The project is going forward thanks to receiving a $12.6 million millage approval from Flint voters last year as part of the total $27.6 million plan.
Schwartz said she, the library staff and library board are “overwhelmed and humbled” and inspired to “keep working our hearts out for the people we serve.”
As detailed in a January overview in EVM,
The project received major boosts from the C.S. Mott Foundation. In 2017, the foundation awarded the library $500,000 to work with an architect and develop the renovation design.
Later the library announced an additional $1.2 million from the foundation to support the renovation effort. And in December, the Mott Foundation contributed an additional $13.8 million, with the Ruth Mott Foundation granting $1 million and The Community Foundation of Greater Flint granting $50,000.
Leaning over a design for the Courtland Center layout in a recent interview and in a rush to get to a meeting with the architects, Schwartz took and deep breath and said, “Timing is everything.”
Setup at Courtland Center had to be completed, as well as the certificate of occupancy from all inspectors before the moving in to the mall. Schwartz said “construction at Courtland is going very well,” so the library’s opening at its temporary lodging there is still expected in May.
Architect and construction manager OPN from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a nationally-known architecture firm specializing in libraries, is handling construction at both the renovation project on Kearsley Street and Courtland Center.
Two other sites providing storage space
But the challenge does not just involve those two locations. In addition, the library will be making use of two additional temporary storage spaces, complicating her task now of deciding what goes where–and when.
Some materials are being temporarily relocated to a General Motors (GM) warehouse in Grand Blanc located behind Kohl’s on Saginaw Street, and to the basement of the nearby Flint Cultural Center (FCC) Academy Charter School, Schwartz explained.
Space at the warehouse–about 15,000 square feet–was donated by GM.
The challenge, Schwartz added, is choosing what to bring to Courtland Center and what to leave in storage at GM. She said all “visible” children’s books from the children’s section at Kearsley Street will fit at Courtland Center. Other children’s books from Kearsley Street will likely be stored in a section of the FCC Academy’s basement. She noted children’s services will be provided for FCC Academy students, and FPL librarians will physically go to the school under a fee-for-services arrangement with the academy.
Schwartz said books in storage at GM or FCC Academy which are not available at Courtland Center can be brought out of storage in a few days, if requested. Schwartz explained the Courtland Center location can be thought of as “a smaller version” of the FPL.
Digital age changing library’s collection
Schwartz said as a result of the growth of the digital world, FPL, like other libraries around the country, has reduced its physical non-fiction collection and increased its digital collections. This includes e-books, downloadable audiobooks and streaming music.
Preparing to fulfill its key roles
Key roles that the library must fulfill for Flint and beyond are early childhood literacy, opportunities for digital learning and evolving ever more robustly into being a “community hub.”
Plans to expand on those roles for the renovated library include many additional meeting rooms–19, compared to the present 4–along with a digital learning hub, and “Children’s Learning Place.” Services and materials at both the renovated library and Courtland Center will remain free or “as close to free as we can get them,” Schwartz stated
“I will be so excited to see the new Children’s Learning Place!” Schwartz said. The space “will provide a separate room for story times and other programs, more space for early learning toys and activities, as well as the Activity Wall, the Lite Brite Wall, and the Aquarium.”
There will be a 24/7 drop box at Courtland Center. The existing drop box on Crapo Street at the north entrance to the library will also remain in use until construction on the renovated library begins.
Schwartz said the scheduled opening date and other information for Courtland Center will be updated at yournewfpl.org and FPL’s social media pages, along with construction updates on the renovated library on Kearsley Street.
In the meantime, Schwartz stated library patrons can continue to check out books, audiobooks, magazines and music in digital form while the library is closed and moving in March and April. Schwartz encouraged the many patrons who read only printed books to try out the library’s collection of e-books or downloadable audio during this time.
After the renovated library is completed–in about August 2021 — Schwartz stated if the library were to add another branch, it would act as a mobile branch, likely aiming to serve children. Schwartz said there is a plan laid out for this, but the focus now is on the new FPL location on Kearsley Street.
A little history: it started for women only–until men complained
FPL opened as a subscription library in downtown Flint in 1851, when only women would pay dues and be allowed access, Schwartz recalled. Dues paid by subscribers were then used to buy the books. Schwartz said after husbands complained, men were also allowed to use the library, but not check out books.
Later, opening its Kearsley Street location in 1958, the FPL became a regional reference library to serve the state of Michigan, providing library cards to anyone living in Michigan–a privilege continuing to this day for anyone with a Michigan address.
EVM Staff Writer Zach Neithercut can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. EVM Editor Jan Worth-Nelson contributed to this report. She can be reached at email@example.com.