Top 8 Reasons to Vote for a New Main Library

Top 8 Reasons to Vote for a New Main Library
Photo By Patrick Hughey

On the Nov. 7 ballot, Proposition 6 provides "$90 million for constructing and equipping a new central library facility," as part of the city of Austin Bond Election. Since this is the single big-ticket item, and the proposal that has sparked the most public debate, we thought it would be useful to summarize the key reasons the Chronicle endorses a "yes" vote for the library.

1) It's Not About the Building

"The Central Library's collections, services, and programs have not kept pace with the city's growth." That nutshell summation comes from the 2003 Library Master Plan; its recommendations reflected years of citywide information-gathering by a citizens' Austin Libraries for the Future Task Force.

What Proposition 6 is about, then, is addressing the acute need to update the Austin Public Library's collections, services, and programs. For a city of our size and sophistication, they are now woefully inadequate and behind those of peer cities. Why? The space limitations of the outdated main facility have cramped the library's growth on every front. The administrative and operations spaces are deplorable, so crammed with overflowing books and jammed-in desks that it's hard even to navigate. For the public, nothing can get added or expanded or improved, because there's literally no place to put it, or do it, or present it.

Detractors who can't see beyond a construction project – sadly, these include Travis County's Republican and Libertarian parties – do the public a great disservice by sneeringly dismissing a new facility as a "Taj Mahal" or "vanity project." Bet you 90 million bucks they've never read through the specific needs detailed in the citizens' recommendations or the library master plan.

2) Your Branch Library Needs It

Every library system requires a "Mother Ship," with centralized operations and services, to support its neighborhood branches. Each of Austin's 20 branch libraries depends on the collections, staff, and services at Central. Library users who never go Downtown are, nonetheless, constantly drawing upon the many resources housed at the main library. That's true each time you take a brand-new book off the shelves; put in a special book request; use the catalog; use a database; get reference or research help (in person, by phone, or online); enjoy youth or family programs; and on and on.

3) It's About Social Justice

A great Austin Public Library is most critical for our least wealthy citizens and their children. Andrew Carnegie had a radical idea, in using his fortune to provide all Americans – especially poor immigrants – with equal, free access to books and information. Equal opportunity for self-education and betterment remains a noble cornerstone of the American way.

Today, ensuring equal public access to computers and information technology is as important as providing books. The Digital Divide persists. Many, many of our neighbors can't afford to run out to Barnes & Noble to buy a children's book; many households don't have computers at home, or Internet access. Austin's commitment to affordability needs to include adequate funding for our public library system.

4) It's Good for Downtown – and the Austin Economy

Locating a handsome new state-of-the-art library in the midst of Austin's emerging civic and cultural center Downtown is a smart move for a smart city. As our peer cities nationwide have found, new libraries with vibrant public spaces have proven a huge draw for locals and visitors that stimulate surrounding retail, cultural, and residential areas.

Making the new library an anchor for four square blocks of mixed-use redevelopment – to replace the outdated Green Water Treatment Plant on the shores of Town Lake – offers an especially exciting opportunity. (It can't grow taller on its current site, due to Capitol view corridor restrictions.) Not only can a new library stimulate the downtown economy – and serve those 25,000 planned downtown residents – it can help attract major employers that scrutinize and rank Austin's quality-of-life and educational resources.

5) It's Already the Tight-Budget Model

To accommodate the specific needs identified, the 2003 Master Plan recommended a 400,000-square-foot new main library, later trimmed to 350,000 square feet and estimated at $200 million. In the interest of civic frugality, the new library was pared down by staff to a $126 million facility. Then, in balancing competing city needs for the bond election, it was again slashed – this time to a $90 million facility of 250,000 square feet (with only 170,000 square feet initially finished out). As it is, the library will require foundation funding, charitable donations, private-sector partners, and possibly a mixed-use approach to become fully operational.

The $90 million includes funds to expand the main collection (books, CDs, DVDs) by 20%; nearly double the public-use computer stations; and create separate spaces for quiet study and research, lively children's and youth programs, community meetings. This price tag is as low as it gets.

6) The Old Library Predates the Information Age

Austin's 1979 main Faulk library was conceived in the mid-Seventies. Humankind has experienced a radical transformation in the way information is accessed in the intervening years. Austin – a top high tech town – has a main library designed exclusively for books. Its thick concrete walls, for example, were designed to support the massive weight of volumes; they're a nightmare for computer cabling and wireless technology. It's an embarrassment that Austin – host to the World Conference on Information Technology – has a main public library where a wireless laptop doesn't work.

Public computer stations actually require more square feet than books (just 40 terminals now fit where 50,000 books once were stacked at Faulk). Library staff members now need meeting and classroom spaces because they need to teach library users how to use information technology, software, and databases.

While some worry that a new library also would quickly become outdated, a fast-changing world is no reason to stand still. A new facility (to be completed in 2012) will be designed with flexible building systems that anticipate the evolving information technology of decades to come.

7) The Austin History Center

Itself woefully overcrowded, the Austin History Center will have a chance to expand into the neighboring Faulk building, once a new main facility is completed.

8) You'll Want to Go There

A flagship new central library is projected to attract up to 80% more users (currently Faulk serves more than 1,300 a day). They'll be drawn to the main library for its awesome collection and information resources – plus community meetings, cultural programs in an auditorium, a small-business and career center, a cafe, and expanded programs for families, children, and youths. Bet on bypassing your branch in the 'hood, at least on occasion, to experience the handsome architecture on a waterfront site, with ample parking. Austin's new library will be a vibrant destination – with a few quiet nooks.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

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