Brown County Library System talks 2022 resolutions, multi-million dollar renovations and an exclusive look at how the system will support young readers
By John McCracken
When the COVID-19 pandemic initially rocked the country, stay-at-home orders were executed, schools wavered between in-person and virtual learning, unemployment applications needed to be filled out online.
If you didn’t have consistent shelter or internet access you could try bouncing around public wifi hotspots in parking lots, public parks or business lobbies, calling clogged phone lines and waiting for eons to fill out forms.
Brown County Library Executive Director Sarah Sugden said it was hard to watch community members struggle to connect to resources she knew the library could provide. The library system worked quickly to reopen and learned that a world without open libraries is a world void of free tools and resources communities need.
“Far and away the greatest barrier that folks have in our modern society is that digital divide,” Sugden said.
Sugden spoke to Green Bay City Pages about Brown County Library System’s 2022 resolutions and said when they reopened in June 2020, the library system looked at their vision board and used their learnings from the pandemic to inform their future plans, which include investing in community resources, multi-millionaire dollar capital improvement projects and a targeted campaign to combat the county’s literacy gap.
Resource and community rich
While libraries may conjure images of fingers pressed to shushing lips and drab and dreary tomes, books are a single part of the library systems’ role in the community.
According to 2019 Brown County Library data, the system serves around 916,000 library visitors and has nearly 82,000 active and has seen 1.6 million physical items checked out in a year. The system has nine locations, not including its Bookmobile program.
Sugden said librarians connect visitors to (deep breath) public computing, printing and administrative help, job and workforce training, college application guidance, technology classes, reading classes, child and family activities, music classes, knitting classes, history and genealogy courses and even newly released gambit of board game rentals and roleplaying games, like Dungeons & Dragons, classes.
While she recognized that it might be “scandalous” for a librarian to say Sugden said the best resource of someone is not always a book.
“The library’s role is to provide people with access to information,” Sugden said.
When the libraries reopened, Sugden said they have seen people coming in droves to be connected to essential life services, primarily online. In addition to getting online access—as Brown County attempts to close the broadband gap—Sugden said visitors also began to come back to libraries for community and human connection.
“We know that our design and planning is going to be impacted by what we’ve learned,” Sugden said, “and (we’ve been) thinking about how do we keep people safe and feeling comfortable now.”
A verdant jewel
One of Sugden’s 2022 resolutions is moving forward with the new East Branch Library location, something she said was greatly informed by the need for increased community spaces.
At the end of December, the library purchased Titletown Fitness (2253 Main St) a nearby building that will expand the East Branch’s current footprint.
“The branch is just too darn small,” Sugden said. “So the new facility will almost triple the size of the location, offering more space for families.”
The new, 16,300 square-foot library will be equipped to accommodate meeting rooms, community spaces, increased children and family services in addition to the programming the East Branch currently offers.
She said construction is expected to begin in September with completion one year later. The expansion is funded by tax dollars after the Brown County Board approved the purchase in July 2021. Sugden said the library system will hold community listening sessions throughout the construction timeline to better inform changes and updates to the East Branch.
The site also includes a large grass space, something Sugden said was an exciting part of the expansion and could become a community or children’s garden, similar to the one located at Central Library (515 Pine St).
“We image that east will be a big, verdant jewel in the middle of that asphalt landscape,” Sugden said.
In addition to updating East Branch, something Sugden said was over 20 years in the making, the library system is looking to raise $8 million, using a naming rights campaign, to upgrade programs, technologies and services at five of the nine system locations.
An anchor for growth
One of those locations in need of updates is Central Library, a branch Sugden said was in a geographical sweet spot.
“You need these public buildings, like a library, that can just serve as the anchor of development,” Sugden said.
To the west of Central Library is the Monroe Avenue development, which plans to erect a five-story, mixed-use project on the 2.4-acre former Associated Bank parking lot. Sugden also said that Monroe Street development will connect the Olde Maine District to the rest of downtown Green Bay. To the east, Sugden cited downtown and Broadway development.
“The density of development really does make a difference,” Sugden said, “and we know too that libraries are great to increase walkability. As they’re looking to build the neighborhood and make it more walkable, this (library) is a really important part of it.”
In 2022 and beyond, Central Library will see full-scale renovations, including HVAC upgrades, cosmetic changes and a large improvement to services. Sugden said Central Library’s renovations will better reflect the community the library system serves.
These renovations also hope to bring life to some under-utilized spaces within the bowels of the nearly 93,000 square-foot Central Library.
Underneath the rows of thrillers or stacks of storybooks, Central Library is home to a 300-person auditorium and other flexible meeting spaces that are available for rent and uses for anything from family gatherings to nonprofit, social group meetings.
Across from the auditorium is a room currently filled with archive material, outdated furniture, old newspapers and other odds and ends that have wound up in the basement of Central Library.
Sugden was somewhat sheepish with how the room currently look but said she is excited to turn the space into a “big empty box.”
In December, the county board set aside $1.1 million of American Rescue Plan Act funds (ARPA) towards Central Library’s lower-level renovations. The 4,200 square-foot room will be the new meeting space for the Brown County Board, pending their final design approval and release of funding, and will also become a flexible meeting space for other groups and community happenings.
“Looking at the overall suite of sort of rentable spaces in downtown like this, I think, again, it sort of enhances all of those amenities and makes it more attractive to folks or organizations who are looking at where to bring their conventions and conferences,” Sugden said.
Sugden also said the library system hopes to use all of its spaces to house more active and passive art and cultural exhibit spaces. Sugden said the system is looking at deepening its commitment to public art experiences in 2022 and beyond.
With the first steps taken on multiple capital projects, Sugden said the library system expects a drastic jump in usage when the final renovations are completed and will potentially bring a 50 to 100% increase in traffic for the Central Library branch.
Brown County Reading Success Summit
Apart from building improvements, Sugden said the library system will take time in 2022 to launch an initiative near to her heart—child literacy.
“Just over one-in-four kids in Brown County read proficiently by the end of third grade,” Sugden said.
Sugden said when those numbers are broken down by race and ethnicity, the reading levels nose-dive. She said the COVID-19 pandemic has also harmed students’ reading scores and proficiencies.
In partnership with Achieve Brown County, a youth-focused education and community nonprofit, and other yet-to-be-announced partners, Brown County Library will launch a third-grade reading initiative to boost this benchmark.
“We will be working all this year to plan a community-wide summit on this third-grade reading matter,” Sugden said, “and we will be holding that at the end of the year.”
Sugden said the Brown County Reading Success Summit summit will be the launch of a community-wide campaign to implement national models to increase reading levels.
“That is certainly one of the big projects that we’re tackling this year—knowing that that is the beginning of a project that will last forever—but really want to excite and energize our community around this,” Sugden said.
Brown County Library Executive Director Sarah Sugden
Chris Rugowski (Chicken or The Egg Photography) photo
Sugden said that the library system is invested in making sure community members of all ages and backgrounds have access to the information and resources they need to thrive.
“A library within its role can do all these things,” Sugden said. “(They) can focus on these community issues, work with partners, leverage our assets or resources to move the needle on these really critical community issues. That’s where the juice for libraries is in the future. That’s what’s, for me, exciting about being in libraries and working in these spaces with people.”