Sunday, January 4, 2004

At 30, library in its prime

Boone County: A long way from the old feed store

By Brenna R. Kelly
The Cincinnati Enquirer

UNION - Ginny Kohl and her friends were not popular in Boone County in the fall of 1973.

When the young mother walked down the street in Florence, certain people she passed "wouldn't speak to me," said Kohl, now a retired school teacher.

Her transgression? Wanting a public library for her 4-year-old son.

"We were very unpopular," Kohl said of herself and a group of Boone County residents who lobbied for a tax to establish a library system when most politicians were pushing for a new county jail.

But the library tax passed.

Now, decades later, the Boone County Library has grown to four branches, 275,000 items and 45,000 active borrowers in a county of 93,000 people.

"It was all well worth it," said Kohl, whose 4-year-old grandchildren now use the library.

This year the Boone County Public Library will celebrate its 30th anniversary. The first library opened in a renovated feed store on Girard Street almost a year after the tax passed.

Jane Smith, then 23, became the first librarian with 8,000 books in the 200-square-foot space. In the old building, running a copier and projector at the same time blew a fuse, and wires hung from the walls of Smith's office.

"If we didn't leave the bathroom door open the heat wouldn't get in and the toilet would freeze," said Smith, who is now director of technical services at the library system in the much nicer Scheben Branch in Union.

Smith, who earned a master's degree in library science from the University of Kentucky, learned about the Boone job when she attended the county fair with her husband, a Boone County native.

She stayed because she could grow with the library.

"There's no reason to go to another library for a better position or more excitement," said Smith, now 53. "There's always constant change."

The library grew to four branches in 26 years. It now has a staff of 88.

The first permanent branch in Florence opened in 1976 on U.S. 42. Then when the library was looking to expand, R.V. Lents, a retired Boone County school teacher, died and left the library $800,000. That allowed the library to build the 6,000-square-foot Lents branch in Hebron in 1989.

"When we built Lents there was nothing out there. People said, 'Are you crazy?' " said Library Director Lucinda Brown.

Now, because of the growth in the Hebron area, the library wants to replace the Lents Branch with a 25,000- to 30,000-square-foot library, Brown said.

"We hope to open a new facility by early 2006," she said.

The third branch opened in 1994 in Walton and the fourth, a 35,000 square-foot building in Union on U.S. 42, opened in 2000. It also houses the library's administrative offices.

Today about 48 percent of Boone County residents are active library borrowers.

But in 1973, when the library was put to a vote, not many voters wanted a library, said Ted Bushelman, a Florence city councilmen who served on the library board for 27 years.

"I think Boone County was looked at as kind of a farm community. Most people passed by Kenton County, so if they needed something, they went to the Kenton County library," Bushelman said.

He got involved in the library campaign when the group of women trying to pass the tax asked him for some public-relations ideas. He came to a meeting, was quickly nominated chairman, seconded and elected in a matter of minutes.

"You could tell it was planned right from the get go," he said.

Friends told Bushelman he was wasting his time, that the jail tax would pass and the library would fail.

"But they didn't know the secret weapon that I got," he said.

That weapon, he said, was organized women who spoke to churches, mailed fliers and were determined.

"It was women power that passed the library," he said.

Boone County Library timeline

Nov. 6, 1973: Boone County voters pass a library tax.

Oct. 14, 1974: First library opens in an old feed store in Florence.

June 20, 1976: Florence Branch on U.S. 42 opens.

April 23, 1989: Lents Branch in Hebron opens.

June 25, 1994: Walton Branch opens.

March 4, 2000: Scheben Branch in Union opens.



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