The Trails West Branch of the Kansas City Public Library is celebrating 30 years of serving the community while planning for the future. The branch held an open-house style celebration for the community, inviting others to reminisce about the building and its history.
The deputy director of library services for the Kansas City Public Library, Joel Jones, spoke at the open house, sharing the history and importance of the branch. During a later interview, he answered the question, “Why is there a Kansas City library in Independence?”
“It all goes back to the history of the Kansas City, Missouri School District, which at hone time took in part of independence,” Jones explained. “The Kansas City Public Library was part of the school district.”
Jones explained how, prior to breaking away in the ’80s, branch libraries were located inside the district’s high schools.
“I think this branch was in Van Horn High School,” he said. “That was thought of as being a good idea in the early to mid-twentieth century. But as schools changed and society changed, having a public library in a public school really didn’t work out very well.”
According to Jones, many libraries initially rented space after pulling away from the school district. Eventually, a tax levy was passed that allowed several new branch buildings to be constructed. The Trails West branch was built in 1989.
Jones said having a branch location in Independence allows the Kansas City Public Library to serve a wider range of demographics and “keeps them on their toes,” as he put it, and over the years has followed the trend of libraries becoming more than simply a place to check out a book.
The obvious growth, according to Jones, is the advancement of technology use in libraries, evidenced by the presence of public computers. However other innovations are being made to offer more to the community.
“We have a pretty robust health-and-wellness program,” he said, explaining how the branch libraries benefit from the presence of a health-and-wellness librarian working in the system, connecting community members to outside resources. Other health-centered programs are offered as well, and community members can even participate in line dancing classes inside the library.
“Traditional librarians were reference librarians. You sat at a desk, and somebody came in and asked you a question,” Jones said. “You would turn around or grab a book off the shelf and help them answer that question. We don’t do that as much anymore. We still do a little bit of that, but instead we connect them to other resources.”
Other resources, according to Jones, include help with job hunting and resume crafting, or how to apply for Medicaid benefits. Jones said that within the 25 years he’s worked for the Kansas City Public Library, they’ve gone from providing print resources to digital, to becoming a place where all sorts of community resources connect. The Trails West branch now even accepts passport applications, and handled 140 passports in January.
With a recent tax levy passed by the voters, more enhancements will be making their way to the Trails West branch. According to Jones, the levy is expected to increase the library systems revenue by about $3 million, but officials won’t have an official number until the final estimates are received by the county assessor.
“As we get those numbers and start planning, then we’ll have a better idea what the actual revenue is going to be,” he said.
The increase in revenue will allow more funds for operations and programming for all locations, but two locations will need major improvements before changes are made at Trails West, according to Jones. The Northeast and Waldo branches will receive extensive work.
“Once we have an idea what those two things are going to cost us, we can start looking at what funds we would have available to do things at other locations,” he said. “Here at Trails West I can tell you our library board meeting this month approved a contract to remodel our public restrooms.”
No date is set for the bathroom remodel, but other potential improvements are also being examined, such as new carpet and furniture, some of which has been there since the building opened, according to Jones.
“I don’t see that we’ll ever do a significant expansion of this building, there’s not a need for that,” he said. “There are things access-wise that we need to look at.”
Improving the lighting in front of the building to make it more visible at night is one such project Jones said is a priority, but more so is the completion of the parking lot improvements. The top section of the parking lot was redone, but there weren’t enough funds available to finish the project.
“The biggest thing right now that we have to look at is the front entrance and accessibility,” he said. Having been built in the ’80s, the Trails West building is not optimized for disabled patrons, with lots of steps and a long ramp.
“That’s an area that we really want to look at. Can we make it easier for all folks?” said Jones. “That’s going to be a pricey option but it’s something we really have to address.”
Jones said the improvements won’t be made over time, but as revenue from the new levy comes in, the priority will be to ensure the Trails West branch retains an inviting and comfortable environment.
“Trails West has been a great location with a great history,” he said. “I can’t say enough about the staff. It’s turned over a little bit, but there’s also still a couple of people who are here that were here the day it opened. That’s probably the greatest asset we have here, how friendly the staff is and how embedded they are in the community.”