On a recent summer afternoon, three fifth-grade girls sprawled out in a corner of the Northfield Public Library’s new glass mezzanine, skimming the first page of the inaugural book of their “Reading Club.”
On the floor below, an older man relaxed in a pocket of sunlight, the newspaper spread over his knees. In another nook, a studying college student bobbed her head to music from her headphones.
“Books aren’t the only reason libraries are important,” said Teresa Jensen, the library’s director. “The library is really a gathering place.”
Now, two months after the grand reopening of the newly renovated Northfield library, more than 800 people come through the doors every day. The $3.4 million upgrade added a glass atrium to the entrance, a play space in the children’s area and an outdoor patio while updating and preserving the infrastructure of the 106-year-old building.
The Northfield Public Library was one of 66 Minnesota libraries funded by grants from steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie in the early 20th century. Northfield received $10,000 and opened the downtown library in 1910. The outside of the building has managed to maintain its 1906 charm, something that Northfield residents have taken pride in.
The recent renovation marked the first major change to the library in three decades. In 1985, an expansion tripled the size of the building. A 2008 study recommended nearly tripling the square footage again. The community balked — residents liked the quaint little brick building overlooking the historic district. When the recession hit later that year, the plans for the $13 million project were tabled.
In 2014, when talk of library changes resurfaced, the community spoke again, advocating to keep the historic library where it sits. The Friends and Foundation of the Northfield Public Library and the city library board led a fundraising campaign that raised 40 percent of the money for the project. The funds came from more than 500 donors, including one young library-goer who donated his allowance. The city initially committed $1 million to the project but raised that amount for safety and accessibility improvements and covered 60 percent of the project’s costs.
“We had a lot of community support,” Jensen said. “Northfield loves its library.”
In addition to adding more meeting, reading and playing spaces, a large chunk of the money went to bringing the library up to code and finding ways to update while honoring its century of history, Jensen said. The glass atrium was added without changing what once were exterior walls. Once the sun goes down and the new LED lights go on, the old exposed brick looks like it’s displayed “in a snow globe,” Jensen said.
Lynn Clayton, a new resident to Northfield, comes to the library about three times a week to read the newspaper in the atrium. He said even when the winter weather comes, he’ll travel the two blocks from his home to get the news and soak up the son.
“I’m so glad they didn’t move the library outside of town,” he said. “It would have lost all of its character.”
Sitting cross-legged in a chair in the second-floor atrium, 9-year-old Sophia Weed looked up from “The Borrowers” — the Reading Club’s first topic of discussion — and told her friends she liked the mix of the “old stuff and the cool new stuff” in the library.
The members of Reading Club said they loved the library before but now it’s “way better,” 10-year-old Isabelle Hunter said.
Cradling her copy of the book — with what looks to be maybe a chocolate milk stain on the pages — and leaning back against the chair, Isabelle looked at the other members of her club.
Her voice grew serious. “People should really come to this library,” she said. “They can see how cool it is but they should really come because of one word: knowledge.”