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Helen McDonnell

Meet one of OLA’s 5,000 members. An interview with random OLA member #34: Helen McDonnell, CEO, Callander Public Library.

Helen and I both have the prospect of a new library building in our futures. We talked about fundraising, communication, and the need for patience.

Helen McDonnell
Helen McDonnell

Tell me a little bit about your current role in your library.

I am the Chief Executive Officer at the Callander Public Library. Ours is a very small public library. We serve a population of approximately 4000 people and our library right now is only 1000 square feet.

Wow that’s tiny!

Very tiny. I arrived here in this role about 4 years ago, but I had worked here previously from 1991 to 1998. This is my hometown, so it was important to me to come back here and become involved in building a new library.

So how is that process going?

It’s going very well, but it is a slow process. About 3 years ago the municipality purchased property for the library. It’s right on the water, so the location is absolutely beautiful. We’re looking at approximately an 8000 square foot building. The actual space, without the entrance, washrooms, storage, etc., will be about 5600 square feet. Just recently we hired an architect.

Site of the Future Library
Site of the Future Library

How do you communicate the library’s needs to the architect?

The architects are using a document that the CEO and the library board prepared to help Council understand the design needs of a new library building. It’s quite a long document called the Callander Public Library Spatial Needs Assessment and includes a chart to explain the purpose of each space as well as the short and long-term benefits of providing that space in the community. It really helped our council to understand how libraries have changed, the kind of community development that could come out of this, as well as the economic benefits of a new library.

Have you been looking at other public libraries for inspiration?

Yes, in November 2014 three Board members, a council member and I went on a three day tour of five recently built libraries that were similar in size to what we were looking at for our community.

Was there one library that you liked the most?

Our library has a very homey feel to it and people love that, so we want to keep that kind of atmosphere in our new library. We found that the Halton Hills Acton branch, which is about the same size that we hope our library will be, had that feel to it. It felt warm and cozy and was buzzing with people.

What are some of the new spaces that you are really excited about having?

We are excited about having a place where people can sit, and meet, and have coffee. We are looking at possibly partnering with a local restaurant so that we can have food and refreshments. We’re going to have two small meeting rooms that can be used for tutoring, collaboration on projects, etc. and two larger programming rooms. …and of course we want innovative space for makerspace projects and technology services.

How will this new library be funded?

We can’t build a library without an infrastructure grant. It would just be too expensive for this community, so we are preparing for the grant process now so that we are ready when a federal grant is announced. The municipality has $240,000 in reserve for this project and the library has raised $198,000. We’ve organized a lot of great fund-raising events.

Our last one was called “An Evening of Outdoor Adventure”. A local artist/set designer helped us to decorate with individual outdoor settings. We provided two guest speakers, a sit-down catered dinner, and a live and silent auction. We raised about $25,000 from this one event with 160 people in attendance. I think the fund-raising events have really helped the community become excited about a new library. The people attending these different events all feel invested in the project.

An Evening of Outdoor Adventure
An Evening of Outdoor Adventure

How long have you been working on this now?

I started as soon as I got here 4 years ago; and there had been fundraising already going before I arrived. The CEO who retired before I started here worked very hard on many successful fundraising events for about nine years.

Do you have a sense of a potential date when it could be ready?

It’s hard to say. It depends a lot on whether an infrastructure grant that pertains to libraries is available. We’re going to keep fundraising, and we will be “shovel-ready” when the time comes.

The OLA Super Conference is coming up. What are you most excited about seeing this year?

Anything about new library buildings, community development and technology services. I also love seeing the keynote speakers, and participating in library tours. I went to the Library as Place conference in July 2015 and that was a great learning experience. It is always great to see and hear about what other libraries are doing to challenge their patrons and meet their community’s needs.

Fiona Inglis is a Liaison Librarian at Wilfrid Laurier University. The Random Library Generator column interviews OLA members; the current interviewee was selected by the previous interviewee.

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