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Why Does Wichita Need A New Downtown Library?

Carla Eckels

The changing role of libraries is evident across the country. With e-books and other emerging technologies, libraries continue to adapt to meet the needs of their patrons.

A master plan to build a new central library in downtown Wichita has been in the works for the last seven years. Funding for the $29 million facility is now up in the air with the Wichita City Council directing the library to seek out more private funds. 

During her 29-year tenure, the past 13 years as the director of libraries, Cynthia Berner Harris has witnessed many changes at the Wichita Public Library.

She says the council has given permission for architect firms to submit proposals to the library board to finish the design work for a new facility.

With that work accomplished, the library will have a better sense of what a potential building might cost and to have materials available for fundraising efforts. Berner Harris says according to the 2006 master plan, the expectation was that a central library would need to be approximately 135,000 square feet in size.

“Our current building is slightly under 90,000 square feet, so it would be a fairly sizeable expansion,” she says.

Berner Harris says the intention would be that in a new building, a far greater proportion of the space would be available for citizens to use. One example she says is a significantly increased local history genealogy area.

“That’s a space that we’ve out grown several times in this building because those are permanent records things and that are important to store with some very specific climate conditions,” she says.

Also, an expanded area for children is needed. The children’s room at the central library is not large enough to have one large class of students come and do research or take a tour. Berner Harris also wants to be available to offer the library space in new ways and times.

“All of the rooms here in the central library are really embedded in the building," she says. "So there is no way for us to make those spaces available outside our regular hours for people to use those.”

Berner Harris says many people seem to presume that libraries are something that older generations are interested in and that teens and younger adults find less important, but she says recent research from the Pew Research Center disputes that.

“What they found was that libraries were as important, if not more important, to teens and young adults than they were for people who were older and moving into retirement,” she says.

When people say the current central library is just fine, Berner Harris says that often comes from a perspective of not fully understanding the changing role that a library has in the community.

"It’s very much a place where people come now," she says. "They engage with each other, they participate in programming, which libraries do more than at any time in the past.”

Berner Harris says in a society where people can work remotely, some people choose the library as the place where they spend part of their day,

“So having a variety of spaces zoned for different kinds of activities and noises and opportunities is extremely important to what people talk about when they refer to the library of the future,” she says.

The presence of e-books in libraries has nearly doubled in the past five years, with 76 percent of libraries offering e-books in 2012. But libraries are still getting some resistance from major publishers to make their e-book catalogues available. Berner Harris says when printed books are purchased from a publisher, they count on those books eventually wearing out and the need for libraries to replace them with new copies.

“With an e-book it never wears out and so I think that there’s a business model from the prospective of the publisher that has to be sorted out," she says. "They are being understandably cautious.”

What is known, she says, is that readers are readers regardless of format.

“The great thing about e-books is that they are actually bringing more people to the library than people who are leaving the library,” she says.

Once readers starting enjoying e-books, Berner Harris says they look for a place to get them affordably and that’s when they visit the public library.

For nearly three decades, Berner Harris has seen how libraries change lives. She says a library is not just a quality of life amenity; it’s an important part of the infrastructure of a community.