Austin @ Large: Reading the Riot Act

It's time for Austin to demand the library system it deserves

Austin At Large
As of last month, for the first time in more than 11 years, I have no "official" role to play in the world of Austin or Texas libraries. (I went from the State Library, to the Texas Library Association, to the city Library Commission, to the boards of the Austin Public Library Foundation and the Austin History Center Association.) So now, as a friend and fan of libraries in general and APL in particular, I guess I'll just have to be a pest the best way I know how.

I want a new Downtown central library, and I want it now. Or at least as soon as possible, which is unlikely to be before 2010, which I think is a tragedy if not a bona fide scandal. I want this because I want Austin to have the best public library system in the country. I think it's likewise a scandal for any city that claims to be a mecca of the Creative Class to want anything less. (Austin is "unique" in two ways: its natural landscape and its local culture. We have done plenty to preserve and protect the former, but almost nothing for the latter.) And without a central library that's adequate to the task of supporting a world-class citywide system, the good people of the Austin Public Library can only do so much to meet the needs of the city and provide the services the citizens deserve.

Building a new central library is not the only thing that must be done, though it's the most important. (They call the other libraries "branches" for a reason, folks. Nobody ever suggests that we should have neighborhood health clinics instead of hospitals, or neighborhood playscapes instead of Zilker Park. But a parallel fallacy has dogged APL for decades.) We need new facilities citywide, both regional and neighborhood branches (which need not all be identical, purpose-built, or city-owned) and mobile services (you know, bookmobiles) and more services via the Internet (and more public Internet access to support those services). We need new and more and better partnerships with the schools, the parks, the community centers, the neighborhood associations, the churches, to provide library service tailored to the needs of subsets of the community, in places where the community already goes.

Basically, APL needs more of everything that a library needs to succeed -- money, books, staff, political power -- except talent and dedication. In recent years, APL has been recognized on several occasions as a leader among U.S. libraries -- precisely because it has done so much, so well, with so little. I'm still proud of my friends at APL, but I've lost patience with the premise that scarcity and inadequacy must be the library's lot. I have lived through at least two, perhaps more, eras of APL history where civic leaders have acknowledged their great regrets over the pitiful lack of investment in the library for decades and have solemnly sworn to rectify matters. Then something else comes up and they forget. But I remember.

A Higher Priority

For the last few years, APL has done well to simply stay afloat -- sort of -- amid a welter of "competing" needs, both for basic operating support out of the city budget and for private philanthropy out in the gold-paved Boomtown streets. On the City Hall side, the current chapter of the saga is simple: A City Council that wanted a political free lunch gave more than $100 million in pay raises and benefits to the city's uniformed police and firefighters and neglected to raise taxes to ensure that the money to honor those agreements was in the city's coffers once the sales-tax windfalls of the 1990s dried up. (Yeah, I know, me and taxes. But c'mon; if the council can't get it up to raise taxes for public safety, then we are doomed to forever be a low-tax, low-service city, and we should stop pretending otherwise.) The city budget has been in the red ever since.

This is, of course, the way of politics, but it should be noted that APL has been underfunded as long as I've been around, long before meet and confer, through several boom-bust cycles. It doesn't surprise me that civic leaders would think cops, or roads or whatever other service, are more important than libraries -- despite their promises to support APL come budget time. Almost every other thing City Hall does has a more vocal interest group lobbying for it than does the Austin Public Library, which is why I'm being a bit shrill about it now. Everybody likes libraries -- even small-government conservatives like those of the Bush dynasty -- but nobody feels very urgently about them. And not just because it's not a life-or-death kind of service. People feel quite urgently in this town about parks and arts funding and run-of-the-mill urban traffic. If APL had even as many fans willing to lobby as does Pioneer Farm, it would be better off.

As for the philanthropic sector, let me be clear: A new central library and the other capital improvements and support that APL needs are far more important to the future of Austin than the Long Center or a new Austin Museum of Art. I understand that the Long Center (though not AMOA) is ahead of a new central library in the big capital-campaign queue, but I'm talking about priorities here. Those who give money to civic causes should, if they're not giving money to the library now, be ready to explain why not and when they're going to start. 'Nuff said.

Carpe Diem, Already!

It would help, of course, if we had a site for a new central library. The last semiofficial designated site -- Block 21 directly north of the new City Hall -- was rashly handed off to CSC and then sheepishly bought back and now appears to have become too valuable to devote to a public-sector purpose. So other sites are in play, and word on the street is that the city will commit to one sooner rather than later. But this has been the word on the street for months, if not years. I may have to start a countdown in this space: "APL Held Hostage."

We would be a lot further along now if, back in 1998, the city had not been so cowed by neighborhood activists, organized by the then leaders of the Library Commission, into backing away from the very thought of a central library as part of that year's Billion Dollar Bond Package. Instead, the city proposed, and we voted, to build neighborhood branch projects "promised" a decade earlier -- thus guaranteeing that APL would lag behind the growth of both Austin's population and its land area. (This is why building a new central library is even more critical now; it's the only way to add a lot of capacity to the system in a hurry.)

That was, again, a political decision, but one whose consequences have been ill appreciated even by people who should know better. Worse, though, is the fact that the backlash left APL without much opportunity to even begin work on a future central library -- designating or acquiring a site, doing a facilities plan, beginning design work. The library, largely through the support and advocacy of its friends outside city government, is trying to catch up as best it can, while other supposed showpiece projects of the Creative Class are now on their second or third generations of architects.

So it's time for people who love libraries -- not just their neighborhood library but the whole concept of a fundamental right of all citizens to learn and grow and aspire to greatness in a setting open and accessible to all -- to stop being so patient. Yes, we need to make choices, both between civic services and between options for APL's future. But we cannot afford to wait and procrastinate any longer. end story

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Austin Public Library, Block 21, CSC

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