Finance

Branching Out

The humble neighborhood library is becoming a community magnet and engine of local revival.
by | October 2001
 

Seattle has long cultivated its reputation as a progressive and literate city. So it was quite a civic embarrassment when, in 1994, a $155 million bond measure--to finance a new central library as well as improvements to some of the system's 22 branches--fell three points short of the 60 percent needed for approval.

This defeat came at a time when library referenda were experiencing great success around the country, and major cities from San Francisco and Denver to Chicago and Cleveland were opening bold new main libraries.

Soon, however, Seattle had a new mayor, Paul Schell, and a new library director, Deborah L. Jacobs, who quickly pushed libraries to the top of the administration's agenda. For months, Jacobs spent as many as four evenings a week attending meetings in all of Seattle's neighborhoods, listening to residents express their library-related hopes and dreams. The concerns turned out to be less about the cost to taxpayers than about how the spending would be allocated: People felt that the emphasis on erecting an impressive central library would shortchange the existing branches out in the neighborhoods.

In 1998, a retooled "Libraries for All" initiative went on the ballot with a price tag of $196.4 million--at that time, the largest single bond issue for libraries in U.S. history. This time, $66.8 million was set aside for the branch libraries, nearly double the amount in the earlier proposal. The second measure passed with 72 percent of the vote.

The commitment is being kept. This fall, when Seattle breaks ground for its new central library, it already will have celebrated the grand re-opening of two branches in low-income neighborhoods. Altogether, 26 new or upgraded libraries are slated for completion by 2006.

Seattle isn't the only city where branch libraries are turning out to have surprising political appeal. Contrary to predictions of their demise in an era of electronic media and mega-bookstores, libraries in almost every metropolitan area are thriving on the changes of the past decade: a huge influx of immigrants; networked technology that gives even the tiniest storefront libraries access to materials from around the world; and the disappearance of other community integrators-- groceries, banks, post offices and schools--from the urban landscape. Branch libraries are becoming hybrid institutions that not only offer books and information but foster the social, cultural and even economic vitality of neighborhoods.

The image of the library as a quiet, scholarly place has given way to that of a "neighborhood living room or front porch--a place where everybody in the community can get together and connect with each other," says Wayne Disher, a branch manager in San Jose and past chairman of the Public Library Association's branch libraries committee. In a growing number of places, it's a literal living room as well as a figurative one. The new 29,000-square-foot Glendale branch in Indianapolis, for example, has a lounge area with a big- screen TV, overstuffed chairs and a fireplace--not to mention a coffee shop.

While libraries have always tried to be welcoming places for all ages and races, they are moving toward "a little bit more comfortable environment conducive to today's lifestyles," Disher notes. "That may even include food and drink, or a space where kids are being as loud and wild and crazy as can be." Not everyone is happy about such changes, but it's clear that branch libraries are responding to their customers' interests and demands in order to remain relevant. Many of them are paying as much attention to the number of people who come in their doors--for whatever reason--as they are to the number of books and other materials that go out.

For more than a decade, the Queens Borough Public Library in New York, with its 62 branches, has had the highest annual circulation of any library system in the country. Last year, 17.2 million items were checked out to 16.9 million customers, and more than half a million people participated in nearly 28,000 programs there. The standard library fare--poetry readings, computer training and puppet shows--is only the beginning in Queens. The 30- to 40-page monthly schedule of programs for adults and children includes jewelry-making, yoga, defensive-driving courses, science experiments, cooking demonstrations and asthma screenings, to name just a few.

"We really try to use the branches as a community focal point and a place of destination," says Gary E. Strong, the Queens library director. "So much of what we're trying to do is create neighborhood dialogue." That's no small task in the most ethnically diverse county in the United States. Indeed, the question these days isn't whether people are talking in the Queens library, but rather how many languages are being spoken there.

While Queens operates on a larger scale than most library systems, services similar in scope are being implemented all over the country. Indeed, as their programming has broadened to include art exhibits, concerts, film festivals and Scrabble clubs, more and more branch libraries are becoming full-fledged community centers. One of their most sought-after assets is the free meeting space that they provide for local chambers of commerce, neighborhood associations and other civic groups.

The growth in programs--along with the need to become technologically sophisticated and handicapped-accessible--has fueled a boom in the construction, renovation and expansion of both central libraries and neighborhood branches. Between 1994 and the end of 2000, Library Journal estimates, some 1,200 new libraries were built or expanded in the United States--at a cost of $3 billion.

A number of cities that focused on the downtown flagship library in the early 1990s have followed up with comprehensive capital improvements to branches. Since cutting the ribbon on the Harold Washington Library Center a decade ago, Chicago has spent $200 million on 39 new or renovated branch libraries; 25 more are scheduled for completion by 2005, at a cost of $100 million.

The Los Angeles Public Library, which has the largest population base of any system in the nation at 3.8 million, is also in the midst of a huge branch-construction program. In 1989, a $53 million bond issue was approved for 26 new or expanded libraries, and then in 1998, an additional $178.3 million to upgrade 32 more. The master plan calls for nine new libraries citywide for a total of 72 built, renovated and expanded by late 2004.

And last November, by a 75 percent vote, San Francisco approved a $106 million bond measure to make seismic and other structural improvements to 19 neighborhood branches, build a new branch in the Mission Bay neighborhood, and replace four old storefront libraries between 2003 and 2009.

Other cities have decided for political or logistical reasons to refurbish their branches before tackling their central library. Philadelphia is one of those. In the early 1990s, that city was having extraordinary financial difficulties. "We looked at how we could be part of the solution, rather than part of the problem," says Elliot L. Shelkrot, director of the Free Library of Philadelphia. "We knew it was important to do something in these neighborhoods. This is where the quality of life in the city could be affected the most."

So, in 1995, the library launched a fund-raising campaign called "Big Change," with a goal of renovating all 52 branches. The city chipped in $25 million and an additional $35 million was raised from private individuals and corporations. Then-Mayor Edward Rendell allowed the money to be turned over to the Free Library Foundation, which oversaw a fast-tracked construction process. All but four of the branches are finished, and the system is just shy of breaking its all-time circulation record set in the 1960s, when Philadelphia had half a million more people than it does today.

Philadelphia's attention is now shifting to rehabilitation of the central library. That's also the case in Indianapolis, which is moving forward with a $103 million downtown library expansion following a $50 million effort to rebuild or renovate more than a dozen of its 21 neighborhood branches.

San Diego has been wrangling for decades over plans to build a new central library. Meanwhile, as the city sprawled, new branches were constructed in fast-growing areas, but little was done to update facilities in the older neighborhoods. Finally, this summer, the city council settled on a site for the $145 million downtown library, but also decided that the plans should include improvements to the entire system.

Seattle's Deborah Jacobs warns that any library debate about downtown versus the neighborhoods is counterproductive. "I wasn't going to allow myself to get into that," she says. Other recent recruits to the library renaissance, such as Minneapolis and Jacksonville, are taking the same approach and tackling both central and branch library projects simultaneously.

When it comes to building new libraries, "it's the opposite of NIMBY," says Los Angeles City Librarian Susan Kent. Every council member wants to have one in his or her ward, and every citizen wants one within easy walking distance.

The sense of pride and ownership that residents feel toward their branch library is something of a double-edged sword for local government. Deep reservoirs of grassroots support can quickly turn into protests against plans to relocate or consolidate facilities in an effort to operate a library system more efficiently.

In a few cities, tight finances and shifting demographics are forcing officials to make those difficult choices. Last year, the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library system explored a consultant's proposal that advocated reducing the total number of branch libraries in the county from 52 to 39. Within the city of Buffalo itself, branches would have dropped from 15 to 8. The idea was to move to fewer but bigger branches that would be open longer hours. In 22 public meetings over four months, residents resoundingly decried the consolidation proposal. In response to intense opposition from the community and its elected representatives, the library board scrapped the plan last fall.

Carla D. Hayden, director of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, unveiled a master plan four years ago to build a regional branch in each quadrant of the city, in addition to the 26 existing branch libraries. Shortly afterward, however, the city found itself with serious budget problems, and this summer, a frustrated Hayden announced that five branches would be shuttered on September 1. They were chosen on the basis of usage, size, condition, renovation cost, proximity to other branches and the library's ability to maintain a presence in the community.

Mayor Martin O'Malley backed Hayden's decision, but in a city where only half of the schools offer any library service at all, and where several schools and fire stations have recently been shut down, residents were outraged. The libraries "are the last sign of government" in these neighborhoods, says state Senator George W. Della Jr., who represents a part of the city not far from the ill-fated Hollins-Payson branch library. "In this less-than-affluent neighborhood, people cherish that library. They may not have taken out many books, but they used the facility. It's a safe haven for children and seniors."

Della believes that if the library had reached out to the corporate community, some or all of the branches might have been saved. Hayden doesn't think so. "The private sector wants to do public-private partnerships to supplement and enhance services," she says, "but they do not want to replace city dollars just to keep the doors open."

Given the dire fiscal situation, Hayden says she'll be lucky to build two of the four regional libraries in the next decade. Nevertheless, construction is under way on an $8 million, 45,000-square-foot branch in Highlandtown. Supporters believe it will breathe new life into a moribund commercial district. Others are skeptical. "I never have seen a library work as a magnet for business," city council member Nicholas C. D'Adamo Jr. wrote in a letter to the Baltimore Sun.

Other cities, however, have seen libraries serve exactly that purpose. In Chicago, Mayor Richard M. Daley refers to them as the "heartbeat of communities" and has been championing them as people-intensive anchors in a larger, holistic approach to the redevelopment of housing, retail, offices, schools and parks in the city's 78 neighborhoods. "The Chicago Public Library," says Eleanor Jo Rodger, president of the Urban Libraries Council, "is in the Chicago business."

The city's library system has all but abandoned the practice of using leased, storefront branches--which tend to be very small and poorly suited--in favor of what Library Commissioner Mary A. Dempsey calls "freestanding `monumental' buildings that make a bold statement about the city's commitment to these neighborhoods."

Just as Chicago's Harold Washington library spurred revitalization of the South Loop, the city's Near North branch has served as a catalyst for public- and private-sector investment in the long-blighted area around the Cabrini-Green housing project. The library's opening in 1997 has been followed by construction of a new high school, police station, park, several thousand mixed-income housing units and a shopping center that includes a large supermarket and a Starbucks. A diverse mix of people from both Cabrini-Green and the affluent lakeshore area nearby can be found in the checkout lines of both the library and the stores.

In Indianapolis, the College Avenue branch library also bridges two worlds: the Meridian-Kessler neighborhood, an affluent community with large homes on the National Register of Historic Places, and a low- income area with a history of crime and racial tension that culminated in a "mini riot" between police and the black community in 1995. At its opening, Caroline J. Farrar, executive director of the Meridian- Kessler Neighborhood Association, described the branch library as "the most outstanding asset that has come into this neighborhood in a decade."

Several miles away, on Indianapolis' North Side, is the new Glendale branch, which anchors a retail mall. In 1999, the local library was overcrowded but had no room to expand. At the same time, the owner of the city's oldest enclosed shopping center was looking for an infusion of tenants with drawing power and proposed that the library relocate there.

As library officials pondered the six-block move, 1,300 people signed a petition opposing the plan. "It would have been easy to say no. There were people who felt strongly on both sides of the issue," says Edward M. Szynaka, chief executive officer of the Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library system. "But by the time we opened, some of the very citizens who had been the most vociferous critics were saying it had worked out so much better than anything they could have imagined." With some 3,000 daily visitors to the library, he adds, "I know the owner is delighted with the foot traffic."

While Indianapolis' library-in-a-mall is unique, Seattle is emerging as a national leader when it comes to co-location and collaboration, despite the logistical headaches of such an approach.

Seattle opened its NewHolly branch library in 1999 as part of a neighborhood campus/learning center that also houses a branch of South Seattle Community College, a child care center and a youth tutoring program. The surrounding "urban village" mixes 900 low-income housing units with 200 market-rate homes.

Another branch library, Wallingford, is a $400,000 project in a $5 million building that also houses a family-support center, food bank, meeting hall and social services for the homeless. Plans call for the new $6.5 million Ballard branch to be the centerpiece of a six-block stretch with a park, store and housing for seniors. And the International District library will be part of a complex developed by the Seattle Chinatown/International District Preservation and Development Authority. It will include 57 units of low-income housing, a community center, retail space and underground parking.

"We developed a policy that says we prefer a stand-alone library," Jacobs says. "But what we've discovered is that neighborhood by neighborhood there are different needs. Some absolutely demand freestanding libraries. But in lower-income neighborhoods, in order to achieve other goals, they are developing mixed-use buildings and want us to be part of it."

Philadelphia's Shelkrot says the evidence is indisputable that libraries "can change the look and vitality of an area." The role they have to play now, he insists, "is not one of bricks and mortar, but programs, services and technology."

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