Noel Wien Library over halfway through its major makeover

Published: Nov. 17, 2023 at 9:13 AM AKST
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - Borough officials shined a light on construction progress for Noel Wien Library’s 10 month-long renovation project during a Nov. 16 visit to the site.

A fan of biographies and historical fiction, the new Director of Libraries Jamia Alexander Ball helped lead the tour. She recently took over from the former director, Melissa Harter, who had been at the helm since 2017.

A longtime library professional, Alexander Ball also carries with her years of prior experience in management teams that were involved in renovations. She said that background has smoothed the process of sliding into her new spot midway through the multi-million dollar project.

She said she can’t wait to see the end product. “I’m really excited to see the culmination of the project ... and excited to open it up to the community,” she said with a smile.

Tools and machinery were spread throughout the gutted building during the tour. A green soda can sat on top of a toolbox. The exposed concrete was cold and workers drilled and sawed and hauled throughout the visit.

Yet the sawdust smell mimicked that of book pages and the still-hanging navigational signs that orient patrons during their library trips gave a familiar feel. That’s not to mention the walls are up for the 4,000-square foot expansion, with the new designs beginning to take shape.

In other words: Though clearly a construction site, the essence of library remains.

“Right at this line, this used to be the exterior wall — so now, everything from here to there, that’s the addition,” said Jonathan Shambare, Manager of Design and Construction, while standing in the Berry Room and making a sweeping gesture toward the south end of the building.

The extension to the backend of the Berry Room constitutes most of the added space and it already features large rectangular windows facing Airport Way.

Plans for the expansion also include more space for the Teen Room, which will get new glass doors on the side facing the library’s interior, along with lounge furniture, tables, chairs, and a tv for programming. That room will be a total of 1,900 square feet after the renovation, according to Shambare.

With snow and cold here to stay for the remainder of construction, the crew is continuing to plug away at indoor ventures that upgrade the interior areas. Neat rows of electrical infrastructure are lining the floors for the new lighted shelves and the design team has selected a deep blue color to encircle the stacks as part of the updated atmosphere.

Once home to audiobooks, Alexander Ball explained the soon-to-be maker space will see new glass entrances and exits as well as an easy-to-clean floor so it can house the fun, but messy projects that lie in its future.

Finally, there’s the café. West-facing windows allow light into the space where community members will soon be able to gather over the steam of their favorite hot beverages or share a snack with friends.

A café vendor has yet to be chosen, however, and Alexander Ball said the borough is working to write the request for proposals.

Excited about some of the less visible upgrades, Shambare pointed out that even the less flashy renovations, like improved internet and a better HVAC system, will enhance the Noel Wien experience for years to come. “It’s a long-term investment,” he said.

Shambare also assuaged worries of asbestos that had emerged over the summer. He said the pipe-filling joint compound from the 1980s would have been contemporary with dangerous levels of asbestos in construction, suggesting the possibility that crews would need to remove it. But substances went out for testing and the levels came back below a threshold deemed dangerous.

All in all, the officials say renovations are going well and staying on schedule.

Standing in the auditorium is seeing some changes of its own, including a storage area and a new passage to the conference room, Alexander Ball said “substantial completion is expected to be in February.”

Then starts the process of transferring materials currently stored at the Joy Elementary School building, now called Joy Community Center, back to their permanent home.

“Right now we have teen materials and children’s materials for browsing [at Joy], and then we have an additional area where there’s a lot of storage and most of that is general collections,” she said, raising her voice over the whir of a drill before continuing, “so we’ll have to bring all that back over here and put them back on the shelves in the correct order.”

Though an exact date has not been determined, Alexander Ball estimated the transition will take at least a month after construction ends in February.

In the meantime, she recommended taking time to head over to the North Pole Branch Library.

“It’s a great staff out there, and they do great work and it’s like a spa building. You can go in, big lodge-type entryway — no massages, though, but books,” she said with a laugh.