It was two years ago Friday that K-State dean of libraries Lori Goetsch was at a conference on library fundraising in Texas when she got a K-State alert on her phone — firefighters were battling an attic fire at Hale Library.

Goetsch immediately called back home and talked through the situation with her staff. Fire alarms and visits from the fire department aren’t uncommon at the library and other campus buildings — the buildings are prone to small microwave popcorn fires and smoke from malfunctioning HVAC units.

But as Goetsch talked on the phone, she began to realize the full extent of what had happened, and she flew home and arrived to a special K-State president’s cabinet meeting the next morning. She and president Richard Myers would have to wait for carbon monoxide to clear, but when they finally re-entered the building wearing hard hats, vests, boots and masks, Goetsch said one thing became immediately apparent:

For better or for worse, K-State’s central library had entered a new chapter in its storied history on campus.

Friday marks two years since an attic fire during a roof renovation at Hale spiraled into a campus disaster. While firefighters and the building’s built-in safeguards kept the top-floor fire from spreading, they also flooded and damaged approximately 85% of the building.

Since then, K-State and its insurance company estimate the entire renovation project has cost $96.1 million, although that number is not yet final. The estimated insurance claim is $89.5 million, in addition to private donations of $6.1 million, while K-State is paying a $500,000 deductible on the claim.

Now, as the library prepares to bring students back into its study spaces and book stacks next semester, library staff members also must contend with the new challenge of keeping the students safe from a virus that has shut down society for the past two months.

The library staffers had originally planned to reopen the building in phases as renovation work wraps up on each floor. Workers finished construction on much of the first floor in August, and students were invited back into the mostly bare study areas and collaboration spaces on that floor.

The first floor also will eventually hold the Sunderland Innovation Lab, which will offer access to technology like virtual and augmented reality, as well as makerspace production studio spaces.

Library staff were set to open the second floor on the Monday after spring break, but the students never came. Instead, they were sent home by the university, initially for two weeks, then for the rest of the semester in a bid to keep students, faculty and the Manhattan community safe in the early stages of the pandemic locally. That floor will be the only one to open, at least initially, when students are expected to return to campus in the fall.

Goetsch said construction is still on-track for opening most of the library by the end of the year, with the exception of the Great Room and parts of the historic Farrell Library portion of the building. Workers have taken advantage of the absence of regular campus traffic to continue their progress on the building.

After they were cleaned of moisture and smoke residue, the library’s physical materials are now waiting in two locations around Manhattan and six caves outside of Kansas City. Goetsch said she’s hopeful the library will start reshelving some materials this summer.

Even during the building’s closure, Goetsch said the library has continued to provide services for students, and that helped the library adjust operations as the entire campus transitioned to remote operations in March.

“In my email signature, I say, ‘The physical library is closed, but the digital library, however, is open,’” she said. “We have so many resources that are online, and students and faculty can do a lot of work without the physical building being open.”

In looking to the future, Goetsch said library staffers are working in tandem with K-State’s central administration to plan for what fall operations could look like. She said the library has removed some furniture to maintain social distancing inside the building, and employees also are exploring using disposable keyboard covers. Masks will likely be required in the building.

Goetsch said she’s heard from students and faculty who are eager to have the library back soon.

“It means a great deal to the university community,” she said.

As for herself and her staff, the librarians are ready to be back with their books.

“We haven’t all been in the same place for two years, and it will be going on three years before we’re all back together,” she said.