Watauga County library seeks funding for $13.9 million expansion


Mayesivy Carlson

County Librarian Monica Caruso treads through the Watauga County Public Library’s Youth Services workroom, Feb. 21, 2023.

Will Hofmann, Enterprise Editor

On a sunny Boone day, the large windows in the back of the Watauga County Public Library let in a bright, nostalgic glow swallowing up the study tables below. Leading up to them are dozens of bookshelves, a storytime area featuring a large castle and numerous workstations for library employees and public-use computer labs. 

However, in every space there is an exception. 

In the windowed study space, groups are often so close together any noise will travel to another table. The teen section next to the castle is a small red table with five chairs. One of the employee workstations for library services has created a makeshift extension to their main desk so every employee can have space. 

Many of the books sold by the Friends of the Watauga County Library, a community group which fundraises and supports the library, extend into a long, narrow hallway, where they’re moved to after being held at an off-site storage unit.

In the same hallway is the office of Head Librarian Monica Caruso. 

“So this is where the Friends of the Library work: the hallway,” said Caruso as she gestured to boxes and shelves of books sold by the Friends of the Library.

A proposed expansion of the library aims to solve these problems. The $13.9 million proposal could potentially double the size of the public library, extending the library’s main floor out onto its front lawn and potentially adding an optional basement and second-floor. 

Watauga County’s census on microfilm from 1860 to the mid 1990s, located in the Watauga County Public Library, Feb. 21, 2023. (Mayesivy Carlson)

Caruso, who has worked in the library for 13 years, has seen significant growth in the utilization of library services. As of 2022, 32,587 people hold library cards at the Watauga County Library, making up nearly 58% of Watauga County residents, according to statistics released by the Watauga County Library.

Melony Winkelmann, the president of the Friends of the Watauga County Library, said working to sort and organize books for their book sale is difficult.

“There is really no place to sort,” Winkelmann said of the workspace the Friends use. “There’s a kind-of little shelf in there, about three feet long, and a rack where we kind-of sort them by categories. And then we put them in Blue Skies Storage until we’re ready for a sale.” 

In order to have enough space for books, the Friends, who operate their bi-annual book sale out of the library, have to rent a $175 storage unit from Blue Skies Storage in order to have enough space to operate. 

The current proposed plan includes a basement which the Friends could use to sell, store and transport books, which could help cut costs and improve working conditions for the Friends, Winkelmann said. The basement would also be accessible from the parking lot, according to the current plan.

“It looks like it would be just lovely to have a basement in the library with another entrance from the front parking lot there,” Winkelmann said.

The library’s circulation and door count compared to the Ashe and Avery County libraries is a reason for expansion as well, Caruso said.

“They’re both bigger and we are the busiest,” Caruso said. 

Boone Town Council member Jon Dalton George said the size of the library and utilization of space displays a clear need for expansion. 

“The library actually was built smaller than it was originally planned way back when it was originally constructed. And now with the level of growth that we’ve had, the utilization of the facility, I mean, it definitely needs an expansion,” George said. “We’ve got groups like Digital Watauga, that do so much in terms of preserving the history of this area, and a lot of libraries have rooms dedicated to that, you know? It’s a lot harder to find that space in ours.”

Digital Watauga is an organization which catalogs historical photographs in order to “preserve and display the High Country’s archival memory,” according to the Digital Watauga website. Digital Watauga was created from a $25,000 grant made available through the Library Services and Technology Act, and is a project in conjunction between Watauga County Library and the Watauga County Historical, according to their website.

The size of the Watauga County Library is a historical issue. When the library was proposed in 1994, it was estimated it would be 22,000 square feet of floor space. When it was completed, the building was a third smaller, measuring only 16,000 square feet, according to a 1995 project description. 

However, the library would need to raise most of these expansion funds on its own, Caruso said. 

“So maybe the county would contribute about one-third? I don’t think it’d be more than that,” Caruso said. “So, I have to look into a lot of grants and I’m encouraged to do that.” 

Since the facility is owned by the county and not the Town of Boone, funding is split between multiple sources, which is something George is aware of. 

“It’s kind of outside of our traditional wheelhouse in terms of funding,” George said.

However, this is not stopping George and other town council members from getting involved. 

“We’re trying to figure out ways that we can contribute as somebody that doesn’t really own the facility, but as somebody that, you know, the library is in our downtown district and is used by a lot of Boone residents,” George said.

For the library’s 116 volunteers and numerous staff members, the current size does not  meet the “essential size” for the Watauga community as set by North Carolina Public Library Standards, according to a presentation given on the need for expansion. Essential size for the library is 23,400 square feet, according to the presentation.

 Additionally, weekly events like Story Time, Tai Chi, Lego Club and the Teen Action Group often find themselves contending for space and time.

“We’re constantly competing all the time, and sometimes we even have to bring a program to the floor out here in the back,” Caruso said.

For example, the Adult Services office space, which has two workstations, is shared by a group of nine people on a weekly basis. Oftentimes, members of Digital Watauga and other adult services employees have to coordinate when they can come in and use the space, Caruso said. 

“I mean, there’s just a ton of different ways it can be really utilized by a ton of people. It’s sorely needed,” George said.