Friday, August 8, 2008

Library Facility Study in Perspective

There has been a lot of interest and excitement in the community due in to our recent study of facility needs. This naturally leads to speculation and good community conversations. Much discussion has been in two areas: “where will we put it?” and “can we afford this right now?” These are both good concerns, but premature. To understand where we go next, it helps to review where we are and how we got here...

Where we are

The Library Board has accepted a consultant recommendation that, due to serious space and design deficiencies in the current building, a new library should be built in the downtown. The study states needs and a rough proposal to meet them. There is, at this time, neither a particular proposal for building a new library, nor specific cost projections.

A key finding of the study is that three factors support a renovation or an expansion of the existing facility. First, trends in 21st century public library service include growing numbers of types of library materials, a variety of media formats, technological change and computing, and the library as community center. Second, public expectations include speed, convenience, and amenities; though we can’t be all things to all people, we should be easy to use, comfortable and have enough spaces for the kinds of use people want us for. Third, functional limitations of the existing facility design, including staff spaces that don’t let us get the work done, lack of a service elevator and loading dock, security problems with the entryway, not enough electrical outlets, crowded and poorly lit areas, and meeting rooms which are too few and only available during library hours. As the workload increases but the staff does not, finding ways to create efficiency becomes more important.

The Board has asked the Mayor to include funds for building design development or program architecture in next year’s budget – this is more detailed space planning that will help us understand size, configuration and costs of a project. This in turn will help us evaluate potential locations. If you were going to build a house, you’d decide how many bedrooms, how many bathrooms, whether you want an attached garage, etc., before you ever started drawing up plans: that’s program architecture.

How we got here

Our library has changed many times throughout the years with changes in use and the community. Appleton’s first library consisted of rooms over a store; a library and city hall was constructed in 1900, with the library located on the first floor. Later the library occupied the entire building, which was subsequently remodeled twice before we totally outgrew it. So we know and expect that things will change as the community changes: since the current library was built, Appleton has built two new high schools, several elementary schools, three fire stations, and other public buildings. In my lifetime, I can remember three police stations and we’re building a fourth.

The current library building was approved in a referendum in November 1978, designed in 1979, built in 1980 and opened in 1981 with about 72,000 square feet. The full basement was not excavated, to save costs, and the structure was created to add two wings on the second floor. There were no computers. The media collection consisted of 33 rpm records, art prints, 16mm films, slides, cassettes and filmstrips. In 1980, the library meeting room was used 18 times, and in the “new building”, the meeting room was used only 110 times in the first year, compared with over 2,000 uses of our various rooms last year. In all of 1980, library users borrowed 5,401 items from other libraries, but in 2007, we had 96,818 items from other libraries delivered here. We've seen not just growth, but fundamental shifts in service, unanticipated in the design of this building.

After nine years here, we had some space concerns; a federally funded study in 1990 recommended roof repair and limited expansion – to meet then-existing needs. We fixed some of the roof, and another federally-funded study in 1994 recommended that we should expand to 118,000 square feet to meet future needs. Rather than implementing the full recommendation, we did the project that was recommended for 1991 needs, expanded one wing on the second floor, and remodeled unfinished basement space, giving us 86,000 square feet. This was a big help for immediate needs, but was not a good long term solution: by 2005, the staff and Board saw the need for another study, which was done this year, using funds from the City and the Appleton Library Foundation.

The latest report says we should be at 118,000 square feet right now -- and will need 138,000 square feet over the next 20 years. We can only add one 12,000 square foot wing to the present building – an expensive band-aid. It’s too late to excavate more of the basement or change the structure to accommodate more floors. We might expand the footprint, but at the cost of parking – and the added space would not necessarily be the most efficient or solve functional design concerns. A new building, designed for current and future needs, and in the downtown, seems like the best solution. The current building could be used for other City offices or put back on the tax rolls.

Where we go next

The consultants gave us some good recommendations. In the short term, we need to improve lighting and electrical issues. We can work toward an improved security system -- using radio frequency identification or RFID -- to help efficiency, promote the use of self-checkout, and eventually be ready to use automated materials handling to sort returned items. Assistant Library Director Barbara Kelly had an extensive article about RFID in the previous issue of Fine Print. Long term we can work toward a new building.

Some people are concerned about whether a new library is affordable. This is a legitimate matter of interest, but it helps to keep a few things in mind: Wisconsin restricts municipal spending, tax levies & municipal indebtedness. Appleton restricts tax levies even more stringently than does the state -- by City ordinance. Appleton policy keeps our borrowing and debt at a fraction of the legal limit, much less than many cities; this frugality gives us good interest rates on bonding.

Any possible library project will be years away, but will fit all the above restrictions – and will use as much private money as possible. We’re exploring ways to encourage donations to help us move forward. Ultimately, it's the citizens' decision – and we know our elected officials will not act rashly. But for now, we hope people will not pre-empt discussion by saying we can't afford an unknown.

In terms of library service needs, and more efficient operations, the staff would like to move quickly. But we know we need to be deliberate – and that any borrowing has to wait to fit into the City’s conservative long-term debt structure. So one step at a time: program design, then site selection, then site acquisition, then full-blown architectural designs and plans, then construction, then moving and transition. It will take years, but it’s worth doing right. Libraries can change lives, but need to be welcoming and accessible to everyone; we want the community to be proud of our library.

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