Booking Austin's Library Future

City hopes new Central Library will be global trailblazer

A rendering of the new central library on Cesar Chavez, looking east
A rendering of the new central library on Cesar Chavez, looking east (Illustration by Lake|Flato, Shepley Bulfinch)

Over 10,000 cubic yards of concrete. A thousand tons of steel reinforcement. On May 9, the physical foundations were laid for Austin Public Library's future, a seven-story, riverfront Central Library that the city hopes will be a global trailblazer.

"It's been a work in progress for a couple of decades," said Austin Public Libraries' Facilities Process Manager John Gillum. The current Faulk Central Library on Guad­a­lupe was built in 1979, but was only designed to serve a city of 300,000, not Austin's current population of nearly 1 million. The city supplemented the growing need with new branch libraries, but, Gillum said, "Citizens have been asking us about a new central library since 1992."

The new central library site on Cesar Chavez takes shape between the Seaholm Power Plant and Green Water Treatment Plant redevelopment projects; City Hall is at right.
The new central library site on Cesar Chavez takes shape between the Seaholm Power Plant and Green Water Treatment Plant redevelopment projects; City Hall is at right. (Rendering Courtesy of The City of Austin)

The new building is a huge project. Located on Cesar Chavez, next to the Seaholm Power Plant redevelopment and overlooking both Lady Bird Lake and Shoal Creek, it will be a cornerstone of the next phase of Downtown development. The building will use natural light for illumination, solar cells for power, and rain harvesting for irrigation. Unlike the Faulk, there will be 200 parking spaces on-site. There will also be storage for 200 bikes, and a direct connection to the hike-and-bike trail. All that adds up to one of the biggest infrastructure investments the city currently faces. Voters approved $90 million in construction bonds in 2006, and the final total to build and equip it will be closer to $120 million. The project is headed up by San Antonio-based architects Lake|Flato: Best known in Aus­tin for structures like the new Cirrus Logic headquarters on West Sixth, the AT&T Conference Center, and the Hotel San Jose on South Congress, they do have experience with libraries, having designed the Great Northwest Library in San Antonio. But for this project they brought in Boston-based library experts Shepley Bul­finch as partners.

Their expertise will only take them so far. Part of the cost increase from 2006 has been in designing what the city hopes will be the next library of the future. Gillum said, "There's been a renaissance in central library design and construction in this country and across the world." Spearheaded by the Centrale Bibliotheek in Amster­dam, it represents a reversal and a reinforcement of thinking. Ours will be "a technology-rich library," said Gillum, with Internet access provided by Google Fiber, but there will also be a dramatically larger collection of books – over half a million volumes, with room for over 150,000 more, compared to the 300,000 in the Faulk. Of the people who attended the public forums, "Every one of them came in and said, 'You will have books, won't you?'"

However, the real change in emphasis is on public spaces to gather, meet, and even perform. Gillum said, "You used to build quiet libraries with loud spaces, but these days you build loud libraries with quiet spaces." There will be a dozen meeting rooms, a rooftop garden, coffee shop, and a 350-seat auditorium. "I haven't even built that level yet," said Gillum, "and people are already trying to reserve it."

The construction site alongside Shoal Creek, facing Lady Bird Lake
The construction site alongside Shoal Creek, facing Lady Bird Lake (Renderings Courtesy of The City of Austin)

The key is flexibility, and the ability to respond to shifting needs: That's why the bookshelves will be on castors, to create new spaces as needed. That's all part of what Amsterdam did, and Gillum and his team visited the facility last fall, to gain insight into how the space operates. Now Austin is leading the field for other projects. Gillum said, "Berlin calls me every now and then, and they speak better English than me."

The department is scheduled to take occupancy of the new building in March 2016, with an opening date that fall. Arguably, construction is the simple part: Next comes the cost of running the place. Library services are the fifth biggest part of the city's budget, but that's not saying much. In the citywide 2015 budget forecast of $840.6 million in total spending from the general fund, library services – both central and branch – accounted for only 4.4% of that, at $36 million. Historically, in hard times, library spending has been among the first to be cut, and APL's proposed budget stayed flat this year, without even a bump to cover inflation. To cover that spending gap, the department has been forced to cut its operating schedule, opening the central library one hour later and closing an hour earlier, and pairing branch libraries so that each can close at least one day a week. "The library is pretty stringently funded," said Gillum, diplomatically, "and we're pretty tightly staffed."

However, adding a new state-of-the-art central library will inevitably mean some new costs. On May 8, Council heard in a budget planning session that the department foresees a 20% budget increase over the next five years, from the current $36 mil­lion to $43 million in 2019. By comparison, total city general fund spending is expected to only rise 5%.

Much of that increase will come from adding positions equal to 68.25 full-time employees by 2018. The hiring process will start in 2015, beginning with a facility manager to finish off construction and build-out. Most of the hiring will happen a month before opening, although Gillum said that, ideally, he'd like more time to train and acclimate to the demands of the new building. "This is not a library where you come in and find staff at a circulation desk. This is a library where you're going to find librarians walking the floor."

Knowing how imperiled library funding can be, the new central library already has advocates to ensure it can fulfill its potential. The organizers behind monthly lecture series Nerd Nite Austin have launched a petition with a very simple message: "Help us urge Austin City Council to increase funding for our strapped public library system!" The group has been working with APL since last September, collaborating on pop-up libraries at Nerd Nite events, and now they want City Council to expand such innovations. Founder JC Dwyer explained, "There is a desire among educated adults in their 20s and 30s to revisit the love of libraries they developed as children." So far, roughly 800 Austinites and counting have signed the petition, and Dwyer says that shows that people are motivated to protect this cultural resource. "Our audience is made up of young, educated professionals who vote."

Dwyer sees the potential budget increase as not only overdue, but an extremely good value for the money. With library spending at only $38 per capita per annum, Austin spends around half to a third of what comparable cities spend. And as those cities have invested in their facilities, they've seen a dramatic increase in people coming through the doors and using their services. Dwyer said, "If Austin wants to stay competitive in drawing and retaining the best young minds in the country, we need to invest, not just in our public safety and transportation infrastructure, but in our intellectual infrastructure."

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News, John Gillum, Faulk Central Library, Seaholm Power Plant, Shepley Bulfinch, Google Fiber, Austin City Council, Nerd Nite Austin, JC Dwyer

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