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Ramsdell Library showing its age, Library Trustees asking town meeting voters, state for funds

“The town has used this library for over 120 years,” said Great Barrington Libraries Board of Trustees Chairman Patrick Hollenbeck. “This building is on the National Register of Historic Places. Where else do you see something like this?”

Housatonic — The Ramsdell Library, located at 1087 Main Street, is one of the two buildings in the Great Barrington Library system, along with the Mason Library, which is in Great Barrington at 231 Main Street. The Ramsdell Library was built in 1908 and was a gift to the town by T. Ellis Ramsdell, the son of Theodore Ramsdell who owned Monument Mills. The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2014, and while there is some historic charm to the building itself, operating a modern library out of a historic building has its drawbacks.

“There are a lot of updates that this library needs,” Library Director Dawn Jardine told The Berkshire Edge. “For example, on the second floor of the library is a stage. The potential of that space is amazing, but right now it’s very difficult to get up there because it’s filled with things that are being stored for other organizations. The back stairs to get up to that second floor are very narrow and dark.”

Jardine said that the over-116-year-old library building also has multiple structural issues that need to be addressed. “There is some leaking behind the walls of the building, and the bathroom that we have is not handicapped accessible,” Jardine said. “The library book stacks are way too close together. You can’t get a wheelchair between the stacks. There’s a bathroom in the back for the library staff, and it doesn’t have a sink in it.”

Jardine was hired by the town as its library director in January, and she said she is catching up with the history of its library system. “I’ve been told by others that the library’s infrastructure hasn’t been touched in 100 years,” Jardine said. “Walking around this library, I believe it.”

The book stacks at the Ramsdell Library. Library Director Dawn Jardine said that they are spaced so closely together that a wheelchair cannot fit between the stacks. Photo by Shaw Israel Izikson.
Great Barrington Library Director Dawn Jardine. Photo by Shaw Israel Izikson.

“Because this building is over 100 years old, almost everything here in this library has some kind of code issue to it,” Great Barrington Libraries Board of Trustees Chairman Patrick Hollenbeck said. “The meeting room here has one electric plug. The electricity wiring in the walls, some of it is knob and tube, which is very hazardous. We don’t have proper meeting spaces in this library, and we can only offer limited spaces.”

To address these multiple and longstanding issues, the town’s Libraries Board of Trustees is pushing to obtain a grant from the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners (MBLC). The trustees held a formal presentation of their plans and the process to apply for a grant from the MBLC at an informational meeting at the library on Monday, March 18.

Hollenbeck said that, since at least 2009, the town has made several plans for renovating the Ramsdell Library and applying for an MBLC grant. Over and over again, however, each plan fell through for various.

Back at the special town meeting held in October 2023, voters approved an appropriation of $50,000, as recommended by the Community Preservation Committee, to fund required studies for an MBLC application for a grant to fund renovations for the Ramsdell Library.

Hollenbeck said that at this year’s annual town meeting in May, the trustees are planning to ask for a town appropriation of $150,000, which is a statutory requirement from the state to apply for the MBLC grant.

The trustees have hired designLAB Architects of Boston to help plan and prepare the MBLC grant application.

The MBLC grant application is due on May 31, and the state will announce in October which library systems will receive the grants.

According to Hollenbeck, the MBLC will provide successful applicants with 60 percent or up to $5 million of eligible costs for renovations and upgrades to library buildings. Hollenbeck noted that the town’s Department of Public Works reported that it would take at least $1.885 million to upgrade Ramsdell Library to current building codes. He also noted that any state grant would not cover the costs of putting an elevator in the building; the construction of two bathrooms per floor, which is required as per state building code; or the creation of any maker space or small meeting room.

If approved for an MBLC grant, a process of planning and design, reviews, design work, and bidding for all the work involved would take several years. It is estimated that, if all goes to plan and the MBLC grant is approved, any construction project would not start until August 2027.

Both Hollenbeck and Jardine strongly asserted that it is worth all the time, funds, and effort to upgrade the Ramsdell Library. “The town has used this library for over 120 years,” Hollenbeck said. “This building is on the National Register of Historic Places. Where else do you see something like this?”

“This library building has so much potential,” Jardine said. “It does need so much work, but it would be a shame not to do anything.”

Another presentation will be held at the Unitarian Universalist Meeting of South Berkshire at 1089 Main St., on Sunday, March 24, at 3:30 p.m.

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