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Commentary: The library that Galesburg dreamed

The new Galesburg Public Library building opened on April 24.
Jane Carlson
Tri States Public Radio
The new Galesburg Public Library building opened on April 24.

The Galesburg Public Library opened at its new location on Wednesday, April 24. More than 1,300 people flooded through the sliding doors that day, over three times the number of visitors to the library one year before, in the previous location.

Some were moved to tears, overwhelmed by the climactic revelation of a project they’ve waited years to see. Others were delighted by some of the surprising features. “You thought of everything!” I heard a few times. Maybe not everything, but we did have 18 years, four library directors, a few dozen staff, twenty plus trustees, and countless community members, city officials, and advisors putting their heads together to create a library that Galesburg deserves. And we had architects who took all of the ideas and concerns and objectives and turned them into an actual plan.

One of our architects attended a special building preview last month, so we got a chance to talk about the culmination of this project. He had been working on this building for over a decade and frequently works with libraries throughout the Midwest.

I asked him what it was like working with librarians, wondering about the trends he might see in the industry. I didn’t expect his response. “Librarians don’t dream big enough.” He didn’t mean that we’re not a creative profession. Some of the most creative people I know work in libraries.

He went on to explain that we’re so used to working with whatever we have, to making something out of nothing, that we don’t ask for more. And it’s true. Librarians can dig through the craft closet, or-if we’re being real-the craft drawer or the craft box or the craft corner because we often don’t have closets—and finding some yarn and popsicle sticks and turning that into a fun and successful program. Asking for more feels a little crass and like we’ll probably get laughed out of the room.

His observation, while not targeted at me, did feel personal. I take pride in being low maintenance. Easygoing. Not demanding. Like many librarians, I will work with what I got.

But that attitude didn’t build a state-of-the-art library.

We often quote Carl Sandburg -- “Nothing happens unless first a dream.” At some point, years ago, someone had a dream. And then they did what might have been terrifying, they said that dream out loud. And then someone else heard that dream and didn’t laugh but encouraged it. And then someone else wrote it down. And then a few more people added “Yeah, and what if we did this?”

And then a few people started to make plans. And a few people took those plans and did the unthinkable. They asked for what they needed to make those plans come to life. And now I’m here, sitting at a desk that my predecessors dared to dream about. The culmination of a lot of hard work and a lot of generosity and most importantly, a lot of dreaming.

This is the library that Galesburg deserves because it’s the library that Galesburg dreamed.

Another thing I hear people say when they visit is “Galesburg needed this.” I don’t think they’re just talking about the building, the books, the technology. I think they’re talking about a standard of planning, work, and execution that might inspire the next dream. If we’d settled for less, that would be less for everyone. When we ask for more, we’re raising the standard for others too. A rising tide lifts all boats.

My hope when I started working on this project was that anyone who entered this building would not just feel welcome but would feel wanted in this space. Building a library for 30,000 people with 30,000 different needs, wants, and expectations was daunting, but if we’d cut corners, we would be cutting people out of the project.

If we settled for less, we’d be settling for fewer people to benefit from this space. This library belongs to our community; our community dreamed it and our community built it and our responsibility as librarians and as community members is to not settle for less but to inspire the next dream.

Tri States Public Radio produced this story.  TSPR relies on financial support from readers and listeners in order to provide coverage of the issues that matter to west central Illinois, southeast Iowa, and northeast Missouri. As someone who values the content created by TSPR's news department please consider making a financial contribution.

Noelle Thompson is director of the Galesburg Public Library.