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New Initiatives At St. Louis County Library As Building Plan Moves Forward Despite Controversy

Credit St. Louis County Library
St. Louis County Library Director Kristen Sorth

In 2012 St. Louis County voters approved a $.06 tax increase to fund acapital improvement plan for the St. Louis County Library. As Phase I of the project gets underway, the library’s new director Kristen Sorth was Don Marsh’s guest on St. Louis on the Air to discuss the project and new initiatives at the library.

Phase I includes the replacement of the Lewis and Clark and Tesson Ferry branches, an addition to the Rock Road branch, and renovations at the Indian Trails, Jamestown Bluffs, Weber Road, Oak Bend, Natural Bridge, Prairie Commons, Cliff Cave  and Sachs branches. But the replacement of the Tesson Ferry and Lewis and Clark branches have been met with some controversy. Historical preservationists have advocated for the renovation of the existing structures rather than re-building them.

Sorth maintains that in both cases, renovation is not the answer. The Tesson Ferry location has geological issues and is too small to accommodate the modern 40,000 square foot structure that is planned.  In the case of Lewis and Clark, the aging building is not adequate to accommodate the expanding services the community needs and much of the lower level is unusable due to security concerns. She says that the petitions to save the building are often filled with names within the architectural community, and although she respects and understands their passion, there is much support for the new library among the residents and officials of North County.

“We feel like North County deserves a brand new facility just like South County does,” said Sorth. “This is something that we’ve heard from the patrons for years that there are limitations to that branch.  They need more computers, more access. We’re actually going to have a mini, sort of Kinko’s there where people can use the facility to help look for jobs, an expanded children’s area, those kind of things that the community needs.” She added, “It’s a struggling community, has a sometimes struggling school district that can’t always meet the needs of its residents and we’re there to provide those services for them.” 

Phase 1 of the library's capital improvement plan will take 10 years to complete at a cost of $120 million.

New Initiatives

In addition to new facilities and building renovations, the St. Louis County Library continues to roll out new initiatives to meet the changing needs of its patrons. Last Summer, the library began partnering with the Hazelwood School Districts on Sweet Reads. A  mobile unit travels in an underserved area of North County much like an ice cream truck does allowing children and adults to check out library materials and participate in the popular Summer Reading Program. This year in partnership with Operation Food Search, sack lunches will be distributed through Sweet Reads to children who receive free lunch during the school year.  In addition, sack lunches will be offered on weekdays at the Florissant Valley, Rock Road and Weber branches through Operation Food Search’s No Kid Hungry initiative. After lunch, children are invited to stay for the programs the library offers.

Programs For All Ages

The St. Louis County Library’s Summer Reading Program runs from May 12 through August 2 serving people of all ages from babies to adults. The library has a special emphasis on teens using a teen advisory board to make decisions on furniture and form groups and programs just for teens. One of the many offerings for adults is a book discussion kitthat provides everything needed for a book discussion group. And there are computer classes for all ages and all skill levels.

Sorth sees the  library as a community resource that must keep up with the changing needs of the community. For one thing, the library has to keep up with technology, both with its computer class offerings and in allowing patrons to use their own technology by providing outlets and wi-fi. 

Libraries are no longer places just to check out books, but serve as places where people can learn and can gather and collaborate.   “We always laugh that we aren’t a “shushy” library anymore," said Sorth. If you come into the library, sometimes it's quite loud and so in our facility projects we are trying to find and develop more quiet spaces because we do have so many people there gathering to collaborate. At the Headquarters branch this time of year with finals coming out, there are kids, teenagers everywhere, sitting on the floors at night.  It is a very loud and interesting place."

St. Louis on the Air provides discussion about issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh.

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Mary Edwards is a producer for St. Louis Public Radio's broadcast program, "St. Louis Symphony."