Lee County Library braces for unknown

By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – Never in recent history has the Lee County Library faced a more uncertain future, with its longtime director stepping down amid looming decisions about its cramped facility.
Jan Willis unexpectedly announced last month that he would retire June 30 after seven years on the job. His news came just months after a national library consultant recommended the facility more than double its size to meet growing demand.
But the decision of whether to expand its current footprint or build elsewhere fell to library officials, who now face the multimillion-dollar question without Willis, and who also now must find his replacement.
Both tasks are daunting, but those involved say there’s a sense of hope amid the chaos.
“I’m very optimistic about the library,” said Friends of the Lee County Library President Dalton Anthony. “I don’t think Jan’s leaving will diminish the momentum.”
Anthony said library officials and supporters have known for some time that they had outgrown their 38,000-square-foot facility at Madison and Jefferson streets in downtown Tupelo. In the seven years since Willis took over, patronage increased by 53 percent and monthly check-out items by 62 percent.
At the same time, computer use soared. In 2004, the library had about a dozen computers; it has since tripled that number with an average of 7,800 people using them each month.
Of course, no one had anticipated the digital age when the library was built four decades ago. So it lacks a dedicated computer lab and high-tech architectural amenities. Instead, its growing number of computers have encroached upon space once reserved for books.
Library consultant Anders Dahlgren also recommended six to eight times more parking space, about 100 more seats for readers, a larger children’s area, small study rooms and a 600-person auditorium.
In all, the city-county library would require a 91,200-square-foot facility on a nearly six acre site. Its current site is just two acres, and is squeezed by existing homes and businesses.
Willis said the library’s board of trustees formed a building committee to study the recommendations, hire an architect and determine whether expansion is feasible. If not, it must find a suitable alternative location to build anew. He said a decision likely will come in six to nine months.
Either way, the project will cost several million dollars. And funding won’t be easy.
The library’s current funding comes from a mix of allocations from the state, the city of Tupelo and Lee County. State funding cuts have reduced Mississippi’s contributions. And cash-strapped local governments can’t afford much beyond what they already provide.
Tupelo and Lee County each give nearly a half-million dollars annually to the library. The proposed project likely will require a hefty bond issue, overwhelming public support and lots of private fundraising, said library board member Glenda Segars.
“It calls for a pretty grandiose building that I’m pretty sure we’ll have to scale back on,” said Segars, who serves on both the building committee and the new director search committee.
“We’re working on these two things simultaneously: While we’re thinking about what to do with the building, we’re working on a search committee,” she said. “Jan’s decision to make a change has stopped all of us in our tracks, because it’s the last thing we were expecting at this time. We love Jan and the entire community loves Jan.”
The search committee will advertise Willis’ replacement regionally first and then nationally. Board member Julie Battaile said the next director needs a variety of skills to lead the library into its next phase.
It “should be someone who loves books and understands the importance of communicating with the community,” Battaile said. “Like Jan says, the library should be the front porch of the community. It’s not standing there by itself but reaching out to the community. It’s a digital hub, a community hub.”
It’s unlikely officials will find a new director before Willis retires, so an interim will have to assume those duties for a while. In the meantime, Willis is preparing his staff and support group to handle the future without him.
“Whether the next director is from our area or not,” he said, “they’re looking for someone who will appreciate the progress the library has made over the past seven years and someone who will be very interested in a building program or an expansion program of the current library.”

Contact Emily Le Coz at (662) 678-1588 or emily.lecoz@journalinc.com.

At a glance
- Lee County Library use soared during the seven years since outgoing Director Jan Willis took the helm. Here’s a look at that growth through 2010, the latest data available.
Monthly circulation
2004 9,248 items
2010 15,013 items (+62%)
Annual visitors
2004 168,883 people
2010 258,485 people (+53%)
Registered library cards
2004 29,261 cards
2010 51,485 cards (+76%)
Public computers
2004 16 stations
2010 36 stations (+125%)
SOURCE: Lee County Library