PALMER — The longtime library in this small city founded as a New Deal farm colony abruptly closed in February. A partial roof collapse left the community without a home for not only thousands of books but free internet access and familiar traditions like children’s story hour.
Palmer Public Library’s new interim space opened to the public last week, just days after city officials got word of a $5 million influx of state dollars to pay for future rebuilding efforts.
Evan Wuollet, 13, visited for the interim library for the first time Thursday with his siblings and mother. His sister recognized a copy of “There’s a Moose in My Garden” — Brenda Adams’ Alaska gardening guide — in an upstairs section that felt more like a roomy apartment than a municipal lending facility.
Wuollet was glad to have any library back, albeit a limited one, he said. “It’s sad there aren’t as many books because a lot of them got wrecked.”
The library’s temporary home is in a leased commercial building on Arctic Avenue across from a NAPA Auto Parts store. It holds just a fraction of the usual collection. All the books weren’t exactly wrecked, officials say, but only about 15% of them are here.
The long-term prospects for a permanent library, however, just got a major boost after a $5 million state appropriation for library reconstruction emerged as part of a mid-May budget deal rising from the Alaska Legislature’s long-stalled negotiations.
The funding came at the request of state Rep. DeLena Johnson, a Palmer Republican with an influential seat as co-chair of the House Finance Committee.
Other lawmakers initially pushed back on paying for an individual rather than state-level project, Johnson said. But she made it clear she was asking not for a new library sometime down the road, but money to resolve an emergency at a facility that draws patrons from all over the eastern part of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough who access state services, Permanent Fund dividend paperwork, or court filings.
“This library isn’t just a repository for books,” Johnson said, adding later that her own children volunteered as teenagers at a place she thought of as a retreat. “Palmer library has a place in the heart of the community.”
‘Our legacy project’
The roof collapse came one mid-February evening just before closing time after a series of back-to-back snow dumps that started in December pummeled Anchorage and Mat-Su. A 5-foot snow drift and the nearly 40-year-old building’s wood-framed construction did the rest.
A family of four plus three library staff managed to escape after the ceiling caved in over the lower-level children’s section. In the initial confusion, emergency responders were told there might still be people trapped inside, though everyone was out.
Only part of the roof actually buckled, but the entire structure became destabilized, city officials say. Built in 1985, the library suffered broad damage: Along with the physical damage to the roof, a broken pipe flooded the floor and weakened supporting beams throughout the building strained adjoining walls.
The collapse became the first in a series of major roof failures, including one the same month at the Turnagain CrossFit gym in South Anchorage that killed one person and trapped two others.
Palmer’s library, located near historic buildings like the Colony Inn, Palmer Alehouse and borough headquarters, remains closed. Along with the influx of state funds, the city can make use of insurance payments and is also hoping to get a more than $9 million federal loan, Palmer City Manager John Moosey said.
Friends of the Palmer Public Library Inc., the nonprofit arm of the library, has also held numerous fundraising events. The group posted an announcement on Facebook last week, thanking the city’s librarians for their hard work in getting the interim space open.
The larger timeline on the library rebuild, as well as the shape it will take, isn’t clear yet, Moosey said in an interview Thursday. The city council next month will decide the winning firm from those that responded to a request for proposals to “evaluate the feasibility of repairing, expanding, or replacing in its entirety, and provide planning and design services for future needs of the Palmer Public Library.”
The title of that request sums up the fluid nature of the library project, as Moosey described it: He’s still not sure what form any construction will take, and doesn’t know when it will start, but ideally any new library will include much-needed meeting space.
He estimates the total cost of the library project at $16 million to $18 million.
“I’m telling the city council, this is our legacy project,” Moosey said. “When have we done in, really the last generation, a city building? Let’s make an impact ... instead of just replacing what we have, what does the next generation in libraries look like, that fits into the city of Palmer?”
The temporary library is a homey series of rooms connected by hallways and stairs with books in every room and signs pointing the way. Officials say there are no elevators, but people requiring access can be accommodated on the lower level. It took a few months to find and prepare the temporary space and then move in, Moosey said. Most of the library’s books are stored in a warehouse.
City officials worked with a local family that owned the building, which until recently housed a well-known engineering firm.
Palmer is a city of about 6,000 people but the library, like Wasilla’s, serves multiple times as many. Most of the nearly 110,000 residents of the borough live outside a city. Both Palmer and Wasilla’s libraries receive city rather than borough funding, noted Moosey, a former borough manager. Probably about 80% of the patrons at both live outside the cities that fund them.
Last week, one patron at the leafed through a copy of “Tools & Shops” woodworking magazine before perusing the framed 1958 Alaska Statehood Referendum on the wall.
Another took advantage of free Wi-Fi on one of several computers available to the public.
Wuollet, the teen browsing upstairs, said he’s optimistic for future offerings — “maybe not the same ones but a lot of new books, hopefully” — despite the damage suffered in the collapse.
His mother, Palmer resident Lisa Wuollet, expressed her gratitude to everyone who made the interim location work.
“It’s really nice to be stopping by the library,” she said.
The interim library is located at 137 E. Arctic Ave. in Palmer. Hours are 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday through Friday.