Our Beach Library: A Community Treasure

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Our libraries are valuable centers of education, learning and enrichment for people of all ages. Today’s libraries are about much more than books.   -Jodi Rell

At 2755 Estero Boulevard stands a magnificent white structure, graced with a prominent tide clock and surrounded by native plants. It serves as a community resource, center for information, hub of learning, source of refuge and relaxation and gathering place: the Fort Myers Beach Library (FMBL).

The fruit of over 8 years of planning and hard work, guided by impassioned library and Fort Myers Beach advocate, Library Director Dr. Leroy Hommerding, this treasure that is our new library officially opened in October 2012, and came into full use on January 14, 2013. The FMBL has drawn acclaim – from residents and visitors alike – for its beauty, open and functional spaces, environmentally sensitive and efficient design, and for reflecting so intuitively its community and surrounding area. It’s builder, Manhattan Construction, was awarded a 2013 Sand Dollar Award for the Beach Library building from the Collier Building Industry Association in the Public Works Category.

If you have not yet entered this “beautiful gem,” as the Island Sand Paper termed it, plan to visit. Take out a library card – free to Lee County residents, or $10 for a 6-month card for others – browse the Internet, take a class, hear a speaker, or relax in the peace of the Reading Room. You will be amazed at this community’s good fortune in being home to such a resource.

How did Fort Myers Beach go from a tiny cottage-based library with hand-made bookshelves to this functional work of art? Read on for a quick history of the Library on Fort Myers Beach.

Our Beach Library: A Community TreasureHumble Beginnings

Public libraries are essential to the fabric of American society, ever since the first such institution was founded in New Hampshire in 1843. By 1910, all U.S. states had public libraries. Today, two-thirds of American citizens have a library card, and they check out 2.5 billion items annually.

By the early 1950s, Fort Myers Beach had 70 students attending junior and senior high schools in Fort Myers, in addition to local children attending 2 island kindergartens and Grades 1 – 6 at the Beach School. The need for a circulating library, for kids and book-hungry adults alike, became evident.

The Clem and Lucy McGee cottage at 1698 Estero Blvd. opened as the first Beach Library in 1955, thanks to an initial donation from the Beach Woman’s Club and payment of half the rent by local Realtor, Clem McGee. The tiny space (formerly Clem’s office) rented for $300 per year, and could hold no more than 5 patrons – or the volunteer librarian, Marge Quigg, had to step outside.

The first Beach Library housed 1,200 books classified by the Dewey Decimal System, most of them donated, used volumes that showed many reading “miles.” The library was staffed with volunteers for a few hours each day, a few days per week.

The FMBL became the first Free Public Library in Lee County in 1956 – even before the library in Fort Myers could claim such distinction. With great foresight, early directors decided not to join the Lee County Library System. Our library is funded by a portion of local property tax – at less cost per taxpayer than if this independent library were part of the County system for the ten years (2001-2011) leading to construction.

In 1957, the library relocated to a larger cottage on Avenue A, now holding a collection of 3,000 books and paying rent of $75 per month. Conditions were still crowded, and parking scarce. Annual auctions raised money to buy land to build a new library.

Our Beach Library: A Community TreasureExpansion, Development

In 1960, ground was broken for a 2,600 square-foot library building on Bay Street, as the collection and demand had continued growing. In 1994, the temporarily displaced library reopened after reconstruction doubled its original size. In 1997, a permanent addition was added after the Library Board of Directors purchased adjacent property. The expanded Library introduced computer resources, educational children’s and patron programs, and much-needed additional parking.

In 2002, the FMB Library Board noted that the evolution of the Internet, and growing needs of both residents and tourists, needed to be addressed. They formed library focus groups and distributed questionnaires to examine what the majority of the citizens wanted to see in an expanded library. By 2009, the library offered 62,600 books, 16,400 other items, a host of services, classes, technology and gallery space, as demand continued apace.

Public input was formulated into a plan for the improvement and expansion of the library. Funds for the building project came from generous donations ($600,000), library taxes and savings on budgeted items. The library project included necessary code updates after devastating local damage from Hurricanes Charlie and Wilma. The cost of the new construction was close to $7,800,000 for 34,190 square feet, and the project came in on budget.

 

Since opening the new library, usage has grown steadily. Fiscal Year 2015 saw 189,363 visits.

Let’s take a look at all that the Beach Library brings to our community.

Our Beach Library: A Community TreasureAmbience and Environment

Says Dr. Leroy Hommerding: “While technology plays a big role in contemporary libraries, the attractiveness of the traditional environment of quiet study and reflective learning remains an important element in our design goals. Our building must be exemplary in its environmental friendliness, must maximize the use of natural light and minimize visual and physical barriers. It must capture the essence of life on a barrier island.”

Artwork is an integral, uplifting element in every part of the Library. Decorative Artists of Southwest Florida enlivened interior space with murals, notably the ‘window’ looking out to the Gulf of Mexico on the stairway from the first to second floors. Local artist, J.D. Burdge, filled the entire elevator shaft with an underwater sea scene that links patrons to the seashore outside while riding the glass-walled elevator. The architecture of the expansion includes waves in the ceilings and in the design of the terrazzo floor.

The FMBL is packed with environmentally sensitive features, from lighter-weight bookshelves to carpets made of mainly recycled material that will biodegrade in landfill within 14 months. The carpet is laid out in “tiles” for easy removal, while floors of hollow-core concrete allow access for rewiring at minimal cost. Lighting is motion and occupancy sensitive, and lighting intensity is gradated from 20% nearest the windows, to 100% in the center of a large room.

Five months were devoted to creating underground water capture and filtration, before work on the building itself. Through the grassy swale and pervious pavers, up to 7 inches of rainwater can be channeled into filters and reservoirs, then released into Matanzas Pass, alleviating ponding that used to occur after every rainstorm. Rainwater from the rooftop fills a 10,000-gallon tank behind the building that flushes toilets. Water is stored overnight in chillers on the roof and circulated through the building for efficient ventilation and cooling.

Facilities and Services

Our small island is now home to a multi-purpose resource that would be the envy of any city. One visitor to the library shortly after opening exclaimed: “I have been to libraries all over the world, in capitals including Washington, DC, and I can tell you – everything is here. Nothing a library could need is missing!”

The new FMBL comprises three sections, each with its own unique look, set of functions, and flexible interior space: the Commons, Library Proper and Classic Library.

The Library Commons on the third floor houses facilities for lectures, seminars and a computer lab. It includes the Friends of the Library bookstore, a café, copy center, gathering area, and Community Room. Those with their own laptops can access the Internet wirelessly in the gathering area of the Library Commons. The Community Room consists of two multi-use spaces with flexible formats, including one with seating for up to 110 people.

Seventeen large historic photos, donated by the Estero Island Historic Society, grace the 3rd-floor walls, along with a historic map. The EIHS also donated 2 American flags for public library spaces, thanks to generous donations.

Staff will not be found behind desks in the new open-concept library. They are roving around the library to accompany patrons through the process of finding and using what they need.

Other FMBL services include:

  • Coded locker service allowing patrons to pick up material they have checked out, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week
  • A rotating display by local artists in the 3rd floor gathering area
  • Copy machine on the second floor that can copy up to 11 x 17” documents
  • Doll Collection from around the world, housed in two cases by the elevator on the 2nd floor, a donation from Mrs. F. Preston Root.
  • Fax Center – send and receive
  • Interlibrary Loan Service
  • Literacy Tutoring for those wishing to learn English language
  • Large Print section on the 2nd floor – one of the state’s most extensive large-print collections, for all ages
  • Shell Collection, many from local shores, started by Ruth and Jeff Brame (two early settlers on the Beach), added to by many others

Public Events

The Community Room hosts a variety of educational and interesting meetings each month. A full schedule is available at the library and on the library’s website www.fmb.lib.fl.us

This is your library. Check it out!

 

Janet Sailian

A previous version of this article appeared in the February 13, 2013 Island Sand Paper.