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Institution is going through process for first time since 2006

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FARMINGTON — A series of recent public meetings was the first step in the creation of a new long-range plan for the Farmington Public Library — a process the library hasn't undergone since 2006.

Library director Karen McPheeters said the handful of "Checking Out the Future" sessions that took place at the library in late May were designed to kick off that process, which likely will come to an end by fall with the completion of a comprehensive document that examines whether the library is meeting the expectations of its patrons and how its future should unfold.

"It's definitely time to see what the public wants," McPheeters said. "Do they like what we do? Is there something we don't like? Where do they think we should head?"

The last time the library mounted such an intensive effort to analyze itself was 13 years ago, she said. That plan, produced during a time of relative affluence and swollen tax revenue in San Juan County, mapped out an ambitious plan for the institution's future that took full advantage of the library's sparkling new home that opened in 2003.

Then came the economic downturn of 2010, which resulted in a 25 percent budget cut for the library, McPheeters said. None of the long-term plans or goals that were established in the 2006 document were implemented, she said, and the library is still reeling from the body blow of that revenue crisis, which has impacted everything from the library's staffing levels and hours of operation to its purchase of new materials and technology, as well as maintenance on the building.

That experience makes her determined to keep expectations realistic with the creation of a new long-range plan, she said. McPheeters wants library patrons to offer their suggestions and ideas, but she also wants them to understand that their input is more likely to bear fruit if it takes the institution's financial limitations into account.

Still, not every idea costs money, she noted. McPheeters recounted how delighted she was with the level of public input when the new library building was being designed in the early 2000s. An idea that emerged from one of the 25 public meetings that were held then centered on the potential use of a historic photography collection of that was being liquidated by its owners. The design firm of Hidell and Associates Architects Inc. wound up using many of those images for inspiration, McPheeters said, explaining that the petroglyph designs etched in glass that are found throughout the library came from that collection and represent actual petroglyphs located in San Juan County.

Additional public input played a large role in determining how the library building looks, McPheeters said, adding there were strong preferences expressed for natural lighting, the solstice markers in the floor, a children's area and quiet spaces, a park-like setting with plenty of greenery, and an overall classic, clean design that avoided faddish impulses. As a result, the building has aged well over its 16 years of existence, she said.

"We ended up with a really great building built on time, under budget, that incorporated everything everybody wanted," she said.

The new building was constructed in such a way that expansion could be accommodated easily, she said. But those financial difficulties kept that from happening.

McPheeters said that during most of her lengthy tenure as the library director — she'll mark her 30th year in her leadership role in Farmington in October — the institution has experienced solid growth in its metrics. But that hasn't been the case in recent years, she said.

"The library has not been experiencing growth in its usage," she said. "That's pretty much related to the amount of money we spend on programming and materials. We've seen our numbers go down. I'm showing minuses, and that's not something we're used to. I'm used to seeing pluses. We had 21 years of growth. So we are struggling."

McPheeters said those who work for the library are passionate about what they do and have done their best to limit the impact of the budget cuts on the public's enjoyment of the facility.

"But it's hard to shield them," she said.

In addition to concerns about the effects of delayed maintenance on the facility itself — the roof, which is well past its life span, has developed approximately 17 leaks, she said — McPheeters frets over the way the library is falling behind in the way it delivers materials to its users, particularly in the digital realm.

"We're not able to keep up as well as we have in the past. … That's where I'm concerned," she said.

But McPheeters knows the prospects for the library receiving an injection of funding are not bright. That issue and more will be explored in the update of the long-term plan.

McPheeters said an online survey will be featured on the library's website in the middle of this month, and more public meetings, as well as staff meetings and meeting with city officials, will take place. Over the summer, all that input will be compiled, and the library's usage figures will be compared to those of similar facilities around the state and region.

McPheeters said the effort also will include attempts to reach out to those who don't use the library and determine why that is the case.

"It's not just a one-and-done conversation," she said of the public meetings that took place in May. "This is just the beginning."

Library officials are working with Hidell and Associates on the update. McPheeters said the firm was involved in the 2006 plan and has an enormous amount of experience in designing and working with libraries all over the country.

She encouraged library users and nonusers alike to participate in the survey and public meetings.

"It's important to have more information than less," she said.

As discouraging as the last nine years have been in terms of funding, McPheeters hopes the community embraces and values what her facility has to offer.

"I have hope because I think people in our community want a good library," she said. "When you look just at our summer reading program, we've impacted thousands of kids. A lot of those kids have grown up to become library users. And now they've got their own kids in the summer reading program. That's pretty amazing."

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610.

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