Focus changing for Helm Library

A student walks past Helm Library. Helm Library was once a hub for students to study and socialize, and school officials hope to see that continue once WKU Commons opens. Photo by Abby Adams-Smith/Bowling Green High School

Bowling Green High School

Helm Library has a rich history of change.

The building got its start as a gymnasium in 1931, nicknamed “The Big Red Barn.” In the late 1960s, after years of renovations, the building was dedicated as a library and named after librarian Margie Helm. 

Margie Helm Library closed on May 10, and this summer the old building again began a transition. Its latest reincarnation, called WKU Commons, is scheduled to open in 2021. 

“[WKU Commons) will be a space for people to engage with each other on campus,” said Susann deVries, chairman of the project’s steering committee, “where people can meet, discuss, collaborate, and explore ideas.” 

DeVries, the dean of libraries, said she hopes to see the repurposed library serve as “an intellectual hub that facilitates engagement outside of the classroom.” 

Artists’ renderings released on WKU’s website show a sleek, modern interior, with books stored on the upper floors. Plenty of space is shown for students to eat at the multiple food outlets planned for the building. 

The renovations will cost $35 million, financed by WKU’s dining contract with Aramark. 

That contract, enacted by former President Gary Ransdell, requires all students taking classes on the main campus to either purchase a dining plan or pay into a declining balance fund from which they can pay for food at campus outlets. Those without a dining plan will pay $300 a semester into a declining balance fund starting this fall. 

Nancy Richey, a former reference librarian at Helm and the Kentucky Museum’s current visual resources coordinator, said she had mixed feelings about the project.

“It was a little sad, in a way, because I’ve worked over there for a long time,” Richey said. “Even though I left in 2008, I have wonderful, fond memories. … It was sort of like a maze, the Helm Library was, but it was a fun maze, and it was a wonderful place to work.”

But Richey emphasized the importance of serving modern students with the library. 

“The idea behind the renovation of Helm is to meet the needs of today’s students,” she said. “They want places to study, they want access to refreshments, they want to work in communal groups. They want a different library than I would have grown up with.” 

The specific dining options WKU Commons will offer are up in the air, as is how the new building will honor the library’s history. The jump circle from the former basketball court will stay in the same location, but no other method of commemoration has been specified in statements or released schematics. 

WKU students have been active in commemorating the old space and contributing ideas for the new one. The steering committee has one student representative, Glasgow sophomore Will Harris.  Two online surveys also requested input from students.  

Meanwhile, WKU’s magazine, Talisman, published several tributes to Helm Library at the end of the spring 2019 semester. These included “An Early Elegy to Helm,” Noah Powers’ poem in honor of the old building, and “Growing Up With Helm,” Emily Falica’s essay on her childhood at the library.

 Richey recalled her fond memories helping students at the reference desk during the time she worked there. 

“Some students were frightened to approach a reference desk, and then once they saw that you were willing to help them, they’d open up, and you could create sort of a relationship there to further their career,” she said. 

She added, “We have seen the artists’ sketches and renderings, and what’s to come is absolutely beautiful. I’m excited to see what it’s going to become.”