Northern library bursting at the seams

Lakes Country Public Library raising $1.2M for expansion, renovation to serve growing needs
Lee Pulaski
City Editor

Lakes Country Public Library is more than just a place to enjoy books and other media for four towns in northern Oconto County — it’s actually one of the few lifelines to the outside world.

With an increased need for the library, it is looking to expand to nearly double its current size. That would include a teen area with books and activities, expanded office space, expanded floor space for additional books and materials and a couple of extra meeting rooms to meet the demand of community organizations looking for a place to gather

To do that requires $1.2 million, and the library’s board has raised over half that amount after about six months of work, according to Kathleen Marsh, who is co-chairing the expansion committee and spearheading the fundraising efforts.

Much of the money is coming from the Oconto County Board of Supervisors, who voted in July to provide $300,000 in funding from the American Rescue Plan Act. The Bond Foundation, Wisconsin Public Services and other benevolent organizations have made up much of the rest raised so far.

There is also an anonymous donor willing to match up to $10,000 in donations solicited from the communities themselves, Marsh said.

“I’m committed to getting this expansion,” Marsh said. “I’m devoted to it.”

The area is property-rich, serving the towns of Lakewood, Townsend, Doty and Riverview, but community resources are few and far between in the north, according to Marsh.

“People are starting to understand their importance more,” she said. “They’re not book depositories. We call them CLICs — Community Learning and Information Centers. That’s what libraries are today.”

The facility became a joint library in 2020 as a way to keep all of its funding local. Like many libraries in northeast Wisconsin, Lakes Country was getting billed by metropolitan libraries for Oconto County residents using their facilities and checking out their materials. Once the towns shared ownership of the library, it quickly became evident that the facility was not big enough to serve the growing demand.

“Almost immediately, we looked at the idea of an expansion,” Marsh said. “At first, we thought about a renovation, but we saw that we didn’t have the room.”

The pandemic especially cemented the reality for Marsh and the rest of the library board. She recalled seeing the parking lot full of people in their vehicles working from their computers because the library is one of the few resources in the area with high-speed broadband internet.

“They’d bring heaters in the winter and sit there, because there was nowhere else to go,” Marsh said. “We had backdoor pickup and everything, but the demand did not change for materials. We have the highest circulation in Oconto County.”

She noted that one patron who had moved to the area recently had been told there was broadband access in the northern part of the county, but it took him 18 months and over $1,200 to get Starlink services — including $500 down and $500 for the equipment. Until then, the man was a daily visitor to Lakes Country, using the broadband there to conduct his work.

“There are a lot of wealthy people in this area, hidden in the woods, and you’ll never see them. There are a lot of people like me who have means because we have good pensions,” said Marsh, a retired schoolteacher. “The vast majority of people up here don’t have $500 in their checking accounts. They need our services, which is why we have such high circulation.”

With internet lacking, many visitors turn to the library for books, DVDs and other sources of entertainment, Marsh noted.

“For a big city, that’s nothing,” Marsh said. “For us, that’s huge.”

The library’s internet can also be utilized for telemedicine, she added. There is also a lot of use from the neighboring Wabeno School District and over two dozen families who homeschool their children, so youth involvement with the library is also high. An expansion would help with those things, Marsh said, as well as provide more space for the local literacy council to come in and tutor those who need help with reading.

Fundraising is second nature to Marsh, who is also the director for the Holt and Balcom Logging Camp. She spent eight years raising money for the museum’s renovation, so she was the perfect fit to grab residents and shake them for loose change.

“I should be on my pontoon boat drinking margaritas, but I’m not,” Marsh said. “To me, we are the last, best safe place. Anybody of goodwill can walk into this library and use our services. It doesn’t matter what you look like, where you come from, how much money you’ve got. To me, it’s our last, best hope for democracy, so I will fight for this place.”

A golf outing fundraiser is in the works for the fall, and the library is looking at federal grants and other foundations geared toward library funding, according to Marsh. Now that the library has plans that were drafted by Jeff Musson, an architect from Rhinelander, she anticipates benevolent organizations will be willing to provide large amounts of capital toward the expansion.

“He’s been wonderful to work with,” said Marsh who noted that the library board is expected to finalize the plans later in September. “To get some of these grants, I have to have final plans that show estimates, square footage.”

The library is expected to break ground in May 2023, if it gets all the funding by then. The new expansion is expected to serve the area’s needs for at least the next 25 years, and Marsh said that construction work isn’t expected to impact the library’s operations too much.

The library is accepting donations of any size, and anyone seeking further information can contact Library Director Katie Essermann at 715-276-9020 or