Friday, May 28, 2010

A Capital Idea!

Our City Council’s Capital Facilities Committee is about to resume deliberations on the future of the library. The committee is slightly reconstituted, with a few new members and under the leadership of new Council President, Alderperson Joe Martin. Having already decided that Appleton will continue to pursue a single downtown facility and not add any branches at this time, the committee will take up the decision about remodeling vs. building new.

The Library Board, in reviewing the studies done in 2008 and 2009, has twice endorsed the concept of a new building as likely being the most cost-effective way to address current concerns and meet future operational needs. I also tend to favor the idea of a new building for two main reasons.

The first is because I think we can more effectively provide service into the future by designing rather than by adapting. While we can effectively adapt current space, we could more effectively design for 21st century services rather than shoe-horning them to fit. We could design spaces for meetings, technology, and reading, as well as areas for people and materials. We could more readily build for an automated materials handling system to save significant staff time. And we could work to create spaces that would serve public needs with minimal staff. Along the same line, by building new we can more effectively make Appleton’s most heavily used public building into a green building as an example demonstrating sustainability.

The second reason is that I believe a new building would more effectively capture the imagination of the community and generate donations to help with the construction. It would provide more opportunities to promote downtown development and create both a civic presence and a clear identity as a “center of community life”, in the words of our mission statement.

Although the world is always changing and information is becoming more electronic, libraries have endured for thousands of years. In fact, libraries are becoming more heavily used as people appreciate that all learning does not happen when someone sits alone at their personal computer. As important as our home and office computers are, not everyone has them, nor expertise, nor specialized resources. Libraries provide computers and media technology labs where people can work together and get instructions, as well as opportunities for many other kinds of learning that do not depend on machinery. Learning happens when people come together, and public libraries are growing in importance as community learning centers, where people of all ages gain life-transforming knowledge and skills.

It’s the vision of community learning and the public statement of the values of this community that I hope would encourage donors to support a new library. We know that while remodeling might be done with tax dollars alone, it could be an expensive band-aid. The library staff is by no means categorically opposed to remodeling, if it could be done to truly meet the community’s long-term library service needs. It’s not really about a building: it’s about meeting community needs and improving the quality of life by lifting up our values of what Appleton is and should be.

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