Sitka | Cost estimates for a renovation of Kettleson Memorial Library came in about $1 million dollars below expectations. The library has been considering an expansion for nearly 10 years. Before it can apply for state grants to help fund it, the city-owned facility must first get permission from the Sitka Assembly.

Kettleson Memorial Library Director Sarah Bell clears off space on a table in her office and lays out some drawings. On one large piece of paper, a rendering of what the building would look like.

“It looks kind of cold, and it looks terribly modern, but that isn’t really what the building would end up looking like,” she said. “It was just a kind of test of the floor plan.”

The floor plan is on another piece of paper. It shows shelving in the middle of the building. The huge windows overlooking Sitka Sound – one of the library’s distinguishing characteristics – are made bigger, with chairs nearby, and there are new rooms – administrative offices, study rooms, childrens’ rooms, and even an area that can be sectioned off with a movable wall. Right now, when the library has a function, it must do so in the common area where people usually read or use their laptops quietly.

Bell says Juneau-based MRV Architects encountered a special set of challenges in putting together the floor plans.

“Even though we’re looking at making the library larger, we really can’t afford to put on more staff,” she said. “And we need to be more efficient about how it’s heated and everything. His layout reflected that. From the circulation desk and the admin offices, we can see the entire library.”

The price tag for the project is around $10 million. Bell says that’s about $1 million below what was anticipated. The state has 50-50 grants that would fund half the project and the library will ask the Assembly for permission to apply for that grant. Bell points out that even though the grant is a 50-50 split, applying for it does not commit the city to any financial obligation. If the grant is awarded, then the city gets to decide whether to accept it.

The Rasmuson Foundation has already helped out, working with a coalition of nonprofits to help the library determine its needs and the type of expansion that would have to happen.

The current plans call for the 7,000-square-foot library to expand to 14,000 feet. Several variants have been proposed, though not formally, including the notion of moving the library off its current site. Bell says nothing is off the table, but that surveys have shown the current location to be popular.

“This site is a favorite site, and I think you can see for obvious reasons why as we look out that gorgeous window,” she said.

Bell says regardless of where, the need to expand is acute. As we walk around the library just before opening one morning, she points out some of the difficulties. Boxes are stacked along walls, some books are sticking out into the aisle way on shelves too small to accommodate them, and then there’s the Alaskana section – shelves and shelves of local history, and books dealing with Sitka, Southeast Alaska and the entire state. She says the Alaskana collection continues to grow.

“We’re almost full on our shelving and we’ll be getting fuller as time goes by, so that needs to have a little more space,” Bell said.

The same is true, she says, for the local history room. This is where the library keeps materials that are rare – yearbooks, old photographs, and more.

“You can see that we’re already sort of maximizing space,” she said. “We found a little nook over there, and that’s where we put in some shelving there that normally would not have been used.”

The library’s plans to expand come during a tough time for city coffers. Budgets have been tight, and city officials have begun to think about where cuts can be made should the need arise. If the grant application goes through, a large portion of the library expansion will be funded by the state. Bell says any financial contribution from the city is a ways down the road.

She says difficult economic times are an argument FOR expanding the library, not against it.

“The ironic thing is that in tough times libraries become more critical,” Bell says, adding that not everybody can afford books, magazines, newspapers, or the Internet.

The library, she says, is a place people can go without having to spend money, where they have access to those resources, sometimes for recreational purposes, but often times, not.

“You can almost not apply for a job unless you can apply online,” she said. “And we have a lot of people who submit job applications online. They run their businesses online. There’s been a photographic business that was run using a lot of the computers here. Permanent Fund Dividends you can almost not apply for unless you can do it online. A lot of people come in here and print off boarding passes on their way to the airport. As those kinds of tasks become necessary we provide that opportunity for people.”

The deadline to apply for the state grant is coming up early next month. The library will need Assembly approval to do so. That could happen at the next meeting on Oct. 25. With the Assembly’s green light, the library will be able to go forward with applying for the grant, and continue seeking public input into the plans.