Take a walk around the newly remodeled Grand Forks Public Library and it becomes increasingly difficult to recall how it used to look.
People are noticing and commenting, said Wendy Wendt, director. She has enjoyed watching patrons, after the library’s year-long closure due to pandemic restrictions, as they come in for the first time after the remodel and react to the improvements.
“It’s so much fun,” she said. “I had to make myself go back into my office and work, because people were so excited to be here. All of us (staff) have done it at some time or another.”
Brighter lighting, new carpeting, furniture and fixtures, and a fresh coat of paint throughout the building have resulted in a much-needed facelift for the nearly 50-year-old structure.
The new lighting is especially welcome, Wendt said. “It makes us feel more energized too.”
The ceiling has been painted for the first time since the building was constructed, she said. “That felt like a big improvement.”
Funding for the remodeling project, about $560,000, came from reserves the library has built up over time, Wendt said. The Construction Engineers firm was in charge of the project. JLG Architects, Norby’s Work Perks and Custom Stripes firms also were involved in various aspects.
The new relocated service desk is one of Wendt’s favorite features, she said. Staff members contributed ideas – based on pictures from other libraries – that have been incorporated into the desk, which faces patrons as they enter.
“JLG (Architects) put together this desk that was better than we could have ever imagined,” Wendt said. “We wanted an area where people could sit down, but also that was handicap-accessible.”
Four-sided solid-wood display units allow the staff to better promote new titles, examples of types of book, or books that have drawn interest from the library’s several book clubs.
Many people comment on “the bright, open, airy feeling of the space,” said Angie Laxdal, the library’s marketing director. “That’s one of the biggest reactions.”
Seating nooks situated near exterior windows invite patrons to relax and read for a while. Booths allow small groups to gather and talk or work together. An S-shaped couch in a corner of the main floor evokes the feeling of a living room. An area for teens features two large screens for playing video games.
Computers have been moved into a separate area. Nearby, individual pods offer cocoon-like privacy and solitude – and the wheels beneath make them easily movable.
The elevator doors have been wrapped in a colorful artistic scene, by Custom Stripes, that “really freshens them up,” Laxdal said.
On the upper level, an art gallery displays the works of local artists in a rotating exhibit. Nine works by Eunice Kuhn are on display.
Also upstairs, a high-top table provides another option for up to four library patrons to sit and work or read in a quiet spot, filled with sunlight from an east-facing window.
Library staff members have received no complaints about the new space, Wendt said. “People love it. A lot of people like the seating and the brightness.”
Children get excited about the new space, she said, and they’re especially intrigued by the 220-gallon fish tank that stands inside the entrance on the left side.
“And they’ve been so good about not going down the slide,” she said, referring to the hot-pink enclosed tube that will send kids from a pirate’s ship in the Children’s Department on the second floor to the main floor. Adults are anxious to try it out too, Wendt said.
The slide is one way the library has enlivened its motto, “playground for the curious mind.” It will be closed until the library hosts its 121st birthday party for the public May 21.
Behind the service desk, two swings – thick wooden slats suspended by ropes – add to the “playground” atmosphere. The swings are tethered underneath to keep the enthusiasm to a manageable level.
Wendt is most pleased that the library has been brought into compliance with federal Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, requirements, she said. Bookshelves are spaced farther apart, wider aisles throughout the building can accommodate wheelchairs, and the restrooms “have been completely remodeled and made ADA-compliant, including the push-button door opening (mechanism).”
The structure now offers improved electrical and computer connectivity, Wendt said. “That was a challenge here at the library. We used to have to place furniture in certain places to cover up the electrical outlet humps, so if something looked like it was placed funny, it probably was.”
Before the remodel, “outlets were spaced so far apart that our vacuum couldn’t reach from one to another,” she said. The solution was to use extension cords, “but that’s not the best way to do it.”
In some parts of the building, constructed in 1972, the carpeting was original, Wendt said. “It was basically disintegrating. We couldn’t shampoo it anymore, because it would fall apart.”
The library, which had been open by appointment only since October, opened its doors to the public March 1. Its hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m daily, except Thursdays, when it closes at 8 p.m. The library is closed Sundays.
Wendt anticipates that the library will be open for more hours in the future.
The curbside pick-up service, which began last summer after the library closed in March, will continue, as it’s been well-received, and is especially helpful “for those who are busy or have a carload of kids,” Wendt said. “Life gets busy and it’s nice to have some options.”
The library has reached this milestone after some disappointing attempts over the last decade to gain voter approval for funding a new library.
“So many years were spent trying to get a new library, and then the library board came to the consensus that, even if a library was approved the next day, we’d still need to be in this library for a minimum of three years, and who knows how long,” Wendt said.
“So (the board) decided we should update what we’re in and offer the best experience to our community as possible, and start doing that right away and take the future as it comes.”
Planning for the extensive remodeling project began in earnest in 2019 and the work started in 2020.
“I feel like this was an important next step,” she said. “We had been planning and hoping and working toward building a new library since 2009. So we had held off on a lot of things. We had held off on new furniture or the painting and various things. We held off thinking, well, hopefully there’ll be a new library and it finally got to the point where we just said our community deserves a better space for their library now. So that’s what the board voted to do and I agree with their decision 100 percent.”
Wendt credits the leadership of Justin Berry, who has served on the board for six years, including the past four as president, with moving the library forward.
“Justin Berry was a phenomenal library board president,” she said. “(He) was instrumental, not only in this project, but also in being an excellent, steadying force and a cheerful voice, and he was so good to staff and easy to approach.”
The library has “a long history of excellent board presidents,” Wendt said, citing the past leadership of Susan Mickelson and Brian Schill. And she expects good things from the board’s new president, Brad Sherwood, who accepted the position in February.
“He is a library fan, and has experience leading boards and groups,” she said. “I know he will be phenomenal as well.”
“What I’m most proud of now is the same as what I’m most proud of 10 years ago and five years ago: it’s the staff and how the staff has adapted and come up with new ideas and new ways of serving the public,” she said.
“They’ve just been adaptable, cheerful, hopeful and optimistic, and they truly truly missed their patrons – so getting to see the people (now), they’re just having a ball.”