Bigger, Better, and Bookier: Eau Claire library proposes expansion

Lauren Fisher

RAISING THE ROOF. This conceptual sketch shows what renovations to the L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library – including the addition of a third story – could look like from the northwest (Farwell Street is at right).
RAISING THE ROOF. This conceptual sketch shows what renovations to the L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library – including the addition of a third story – could look like from the northwest (Farwell St. is at right). (Images: Zimmerman Architectural Studios)

The L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library is eyeing an expansion and renovation project that would nearly double the building’s square footage in 2020. A building feasibility study conducted by Zimmerman Architectural Studios last summer indicated that many of the 42-year-old library’s structures and systems – including the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning system and the roof – are nearing the end of their functional lifespan. The study also found that the library, which is currently about 60,000 square feet, lacks the space to provide programming and services to a community the size of Eau Claire.

“From 1976 until now, most of our systems are original, so the whole building needs a facelift,” said Kimberly Hennings, the assistant director of the library. “It’s a good opportunity to update those, and also look to what the community needs in the future.”

The current proposal for renovations include the replacement of the failing systems and the addition of a third floor that would bring the library to a total of 90,000-100,000 square feet. This would provide space for a large, open event space; study and meeting rooms; the expansion of the Youth Services section and Dabble Box; and the growth of the library’s collections. The project could also address the community’s desire for more natural light and would improve accessibility.

“We’re looking for flexibility,” library director Pamela Westby said. “We know that the way libraries are being used is very different from the way they were used 40 years ago. So we know that in another 40 years it’ll probably change as well, so we’re trying to keep that in mind as we’re planning.”

Westby added that the plans for library improvement also include steps toward energy independence. This could be achieved through the use of geothermal energy from the Eau Claire River, she said. The library has enrolled with Focus on Energy, an energy efficiency and renewable resource program, for consultation on the design as plans move forward.

The project has an expected price tag of $15.5 million to $20 million, according to the building study, not including some fees, furnishings, and movable equipment. The library steering committee has proposed that the city provide $11.5 million for the project. This amount would cover the necessary system updates and allow for a small expansion. They hope to lead a capital campaign for an additional $8.5 million, which would allow them to pursue the full expansion project. The next step is to conduct a funding feasibility study to determine community interest and ability to fund the project.

As of right now, Westby and Hennings feel “cautiously optimistic” about the plan. They recently received their first donation toward the project – $1,000 in seed money – but there’s a long way to go.

“There’s a lot of momentum downtown,” Hennings said. “We have over a thousand visitors a day here, so we know that we’re an anchor downtown. We’re drawing a crowd, we’re getting that traffic. So we’re hoping that the community sees that value that we bring with our programs and services, and that we’ll be able to translate that into fundraising.”

More information about the L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library is available on its website, including the building feasibility study and the presentation made to the Eau Claire City Council. Visit