The trajectory of the Kenai Community Library project is strongly reminiscent of the children's tale "The Little Engine That Could," analogized State Librarian Linda Thibodeau.
After decades of planning, years of fundraising, and staff and supporters repeatedly telling themselves "I think I can, I think I can," the project finally reached completion Saturday as the public poured in the library doors to explore their new facility for the first time.
"What you see inside looks more like an entirely new building than a mere addition," said Library Director Mary Jo Joiner. "It is a work of art. What's great is finally letting everybody in to see everything and understand what we were envisioning all along."
That vision, more than 20 years in the making, includes a brand new children's center, a teen corner, new technology, modern décor, and much more. The teen corner - outfitted with trendy countertops, multicolored plush seats, and chic teardrop lighting - sports a sleek flatscreen television and X-Box Kinect gaming system; the Kids Spot features child-friendly computers, massive letter-shaped bookshelves, and a colorful space for story time.
Lacy Elsey, a longtime library lover and bookworm, attended the grand opening Saturday. Though only 16, she makes the drive into town at least once a week to visit the library. And while Elsey liked the old building well enough, she likes the new one even more.
"I love that they have all the teen books right here so you can access them more easily," Elsey said, gesturing at the surrounding shelves. "They were kind of hard to find before, so it's nice that they're all in one space."
The official ceremony preceding the ribbon-cutting saw many officials delivering lofty speeches; references to the Royal Library of Alexandria were made, words penned by famous authors were read. But the overarching theme in every speech - whether imparted by Kenai Mayor Pat Porter or Borough Mayor David Carey - came back to one word: people.
"A library is never just about the books; it's about the people," Joiner echoed. "The people who use it and those who make it their life's work to make it happen."
Diane Kaplan, representing the Rasmuson Foundation, stated that libraries are never just libraries. They are community centers, and more than that, symbols of democracy and the freedom of information.
"We should never take for granted that walking into a library and having free access to information is not a right that people all around the world enjoy," Kaplan reminded the audience.
The community involvement and support for the library was overwhelming, the steady stream of speakers emphasized, with the Friends of the Kenai Community Library collecting more than $500,000 for the project. But raising the big bucks isn't what it's all about.
Girl Scout Troop 545 raised $700 for the library and recited the pledge at the ceremony's commencement to show their moral support as well.
Once everyone finished speaking, Porter invited all the children to come up front to participate in the ribbon-cutting, a symbol of the library's investment in the community's future.
"The best sight I saw," Joiner said afterward, "was opening the doors and having a stream of children beelining to the new children's room."
In true librarian form, Joiner invited the public to enjoy the provided burgers, hot dogs, and other edibles outside, rather than tracking crumbs through her beloved new building.
Though everyone was able to fully explore the new library Saturday, it remained closed for actual business. Patrons can begin checking out books and playing with the new tech gadgets Monday at 10 a.m.