Support the DeKalb Public Library Expansion

I’ve talked often about DeKalb Public Library here. We’re pretty hardcore users.  We attend programs, and spent a couple of years as part of their Science Fiction Book Club, Destination Wonder. I work with them routinely through the Friends of the NIU Libraries.  We love our local library, and have nothing but praise for the folks who work there.

There is, however, one thing we don’t love about the library. The building.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a beautiful Art Deco building, built in the 1930s. It has had a couple of renovations  and one decent expansion over the years, but it’s fundamentally still a 1930s building. The last major renovation was in 1978-79.  Before the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990.

Which means that it’s only minimally accessible at best.  And I’m being kind here. There are no elevators. There is a ramp on one side of the building that leads to the children’s section on the lower level. There is a separate ramp on the opposite side of the building that leads to the main level. The only path between these two ramps is to travel from one end of the block to the other, outside the building. The accessible parking is near the front of the building, and across the street, meaning that people with mobility problems have to travel farther to enter the library if they cannot use stairs.

We have winter here. A decent amount of it. With snow and ice and cold.

It’s not fun to assemble a wheelchair and then get a kid into a building through a door that is nearly a block away from the accessible parking spaces.

Once you’re in the building, the only way up to the nonfiction materials is using stairs (you know, where the medical books are kept). The fiction room is down a set of stairs as well, on a mezzanine level from the main floor. There is a very awkward wheelchair lift that will get you down there, but you need to ask a staff member to get a key to get you down there. If you are there as a solo wheelchair user, you have to hope that the staff member with the key remembers to come back for you to get you back to the main level.

In short, the library is unable to serve a significant portion of its own community because of the  lack of accessibility. For example, we use the library much, much less during the winter because it’s so difficult to navigate and get Caitlin in and out of the cold and snow.

These accessibility problems are not news to the staff at the library, nor their director, who has been advocating for a major expansion and renovation of the library for nearly a decade. There have been ballot initiatives and grant applications, none of which have been successful so far, unfortunately.

Until now. The library has been offered a grant by the state to renovate the building. A grant that only pays about a third of the costs involved. The library has to raise the rest of the money. They are planning to get a third through private donations, and a third through the city (i.e. tax money of some kind).

Which is why our whole family spent a goodly part of Monday (the MLK holiday) at DeKalb Public Library, being filmed to demonstrate the accessibility issues at the library, as part of their campaign. Given that it was below zero out, and we were decked out in thermals and bundled up as much as possible, I hope that we provided a concrete reason for people local to DeKalb to support the expansion.

I was also interviewed as part of the taping, asked to talk about what a renovation would mean to me, and to my family, if it went through.

That would be when I began to cry.

I’ve mentioned over on my LiveJournal before that one of the biggest challenges to raising Caitlin isn’t necessarily just her syndrome; it’s that we’re coping with it in a world where disability often isn’t thought about until or unless it directly affects someone.

It took me a little while to figure out why I was crying. I was trying to explain how our week at Disney on Caitlin’s Make-a Wish trip had shown us that it didn’t have to be this way. That it was completely possible to construct an environment, where universal design and accessibility are the norm, if only we insisted upon it whenever the opportunity arose.

We went an entire week without having to wonder if there was a way for Caitlin to enter each building, without having to spend three times as much energy getting from point A to point B.  It was a week without barriers. That, alone, was magical.

And it shouldn’t be. The Americans with Disabilities Act was passed over twenty years ago. Yes, it was an unfunded mandate, and many facilities were able to be “grandfathered in” with non-compliance, so long as they didn’t have a major renovation. The minute they were renovated, they had to be made fully accessible. Which costs more. So many, many places have just opted to not fully renovate, mostly, I imagine, because they didn’t have the resources to do so.*

But we’ve had over 20 years to make it better for everyone. Without doing so.

This was my opportunity to speak out about the importance of having my local library be part of a life without barriers.  I didn’t want to let Caitlin down when I have a chance to make her world better, and easier for her. I was terrified of somehow being dismissed because “its just not that big a deal” to have an accessible public library.

Well, it’s a big deal to me, and to my family. And to any of the twenty percent of Americans who have a disability.

I hope, that by knowing me, and Michael and Caitlin, it is also a big deal to you. If you’re a DeKalb local, I hope that you will support the expansion however you can. If you’re not local, I still hope that you will think of Caitlin the next time you have the opportunity to make or influence choices about facilities of any kind.

Because it really is a big deal for everyone to be able to actually access the facilities that my (and your) tax dollars pay for.

* This is, for example, why there’s a local restaurant in our historic downtown where we only get take-out. If we want to eat there with Caitlin, we have to take her through the kitchen, as there are only stairs for the public entrance.  Because who doesn’t love feeling like you’re imposing on the restaurant staff just to patronize their business?


About Lynne M. Thomas

Lynne M. Thomas is a nine time Hugo Award winning editor and podcaster. In her day job, she is Head of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
This entry was posted in Caitlin, disability, libraries. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Support the DeKalb Public Library Expansion

  1. Suzanna says:

    I’ll be moving back to the DeKalb/Sycamore area this year and have my fingers crossed that this goes well. If it turns out there is any way for people not currently residing in DeKalb to help please do let me know.

    As a child with parents who have trouble walking or standing for extended periods, let alone stair climbing, things like this mean a great deal. It would be wonderful if some of the older buildings, while stunning architectural wise, could be brought up to better, more accessible standards.


    • Lynne says:

      I agree, of course. I believe that there is an option for purchasing a membership to the DKPL if you’re not in their service area. And I seriously doubt that they would refuse gifts from anyone during the fundraising period, regardless of service area.

      There is, of course, also the whole raising awareness thing. The more of us that talk about this, the more people are aware of its necessity, so that it shifts from a luxury to a requirement.


  2. Kate says:

    Totally and completely this. There are so many places we simply don’t even attempt to go due to issues exactly as you’ve described. Especially during the winter-it makes me feel ill every year to drive past the miles of sidewalk in our town that are plowed under in the first snow and are thus gone until spring. dangerous enough for steady walkers, but completely impassable for everyone else.

    On the flip side, i worked for several years in one of those ancient library buildings much like the one described here. Even for the able bodied you had to literally go outside to get from fiction to nonfiction. The town had been trying to expand and renovate for literally 30 years, but could not get a bond passed by the voters. To see residents now, coming to the new building (an amazing donation) with walkers and wheelchairs just drives home how large a population was not being served. I hope this goes through.


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