UPDATE: Wichita City Council Approves Next Phase For New Central Library Project
Wichita is moving forward with plans for a new Central Library and is expected to put the project to bid by end of the year.
City Council approved the next phase Tuesday morning by a vote of five to two.
The city also entered into a new partnership with the Wichita Public Library Foundation, a non-profit, to pay for the upcoming work.
KMUW’s Deborah Shaar has more on the council's action and the features visitors may see at the new library.
Three women are running the front desk at the Central Library on South Main Street in downtown Wichita. On this cold morning, business is fairly steady. People carrying stacks of DVDs or handfuls of books are checking out.
The Central Library has been serving city residents for 47 years.
While it was once considered “state of the art,” nowadays the building is showing its age, and library leaders don’t think it’s meeting the needs of its users.
“The business of libraries has changed significantly, the expectations of users have changed and much of that is being driven by technology," says Director of Libraries, Cynthia Berner. "And that’s really the thing that has caused this building to no longer be a good fit for us."
Berner says one of the main issues is that the current Central Library lacks the infrastructure, such as electrical wiring and outlets, to support technology users.
There are 31 computer stations in the current library. The new building will have stations and outlets to accommodate 80-120 devices.
“So I think it will be a building that brings the best of the tradition of the public library together with all of the things that libraries are starting to do today in terms of 'place-making' and really being a community gathering destination,” Berner says.
The plan calls for the library to be built on land near the corner of 2nd Street and McLean, just southwest of Exploration Place.
Berner says that to make things easier and more accessible for visitors, the new building will be two floors, instead of four levels like in the current library.
“The first floor will be a much more active and boisterous space," she says. "There will be a larger area for children and a new teen area which doesn’t exist at all in the Central Library right now. There will be special spaces for technology users where we can do more with training. People will not only be able to use the equipment of the library but it will be easier to bring in their own devices, plug those in and do the research and work there.”
The first floor will also include fiction and magazine sections.
The second level will consist of the non-fiction and a larger special collections center for local history and genealogy materials.
“So the second level will be a research center, a place with lots of areas where people can break out into small groups, work together, collaborate, research together. Study groups can work on projects," Berner says. "And if people want quiet reflective study for their research they’ll be able to do that also.”
There are also plans for a café as well as expanded and flexible spaces for meetings. Three rooms will have removable walls so the areas can be used independently or opened up allowing for a space that can seat up to 300 people.
“One of the nice things about the meeting rooms in this new building is, unlike the current building where they are embedded in the building, the rooms are in a part of the building where we can segregate it off," Berner says. "We can use those rooms for activities earlier than the library’s regular opening or we can do things after hours as well."
On the main floor in the current building, Librarian Katie Menon is at the reference desk. She spends time answering people’s questions when they stop by her desk or call “Ask a Librarian.”
“If you read things in the literature you think, 'Yes, (the reference librarian) is going to be replaced.' But no, I don’t think so. I think we still have a vital role to play," Menon says.
For the past 15 years, Menon has helped many people sort through information, online or in print, to find authoritative sources.
In today’s networked world, she knows sometimes a librarian is a curator of information and can make a difference.
“I know how to find sources that will help, that are better than just Googling," Menon says. "We still get a lot of questions on various different topics.”
Credit: Wichita Public Library Foundation
The Aspen Institute is facilitating national dialogues on public libraries. Its October report says that libraries are no longer a nice-to-have amenity, they are a key partner in sustaining the educational well being and economic and civic health of the community.
Wichita’s preliminary design plan is aligned with that.
Director Cynthia Berner emphasizes the location.
“We’re starting to talk about that corner of 2nd and McLean as Wichita’s learning corner because we think that the adjacency and the synergy that we can create having the library and Exploration Place so close together will be really great for the community.”
With City Council's approval, library leaders will now prepare the building design and construction documents.
The Library Foundation will pay for this work, which is estimated to cost about $1.1 million.
It will reimburse the city $500,000 this year, and pay the balance next year, provided the city puts the project to bid as planned.
Some city leaders say the old library building downtown might be incorporated into meeting and office space for Century II Convention Center events.
Before the vote at the City Council Meeting on Tuesday morning, Council’s District II representative Pete Meitzner voted against the proposals. He says he’s not sure the timing is right.
“I struggle that we haven’t vetted all of our priorities to allow this to go forward. I have a sense of guilt to obligate a future council to make a $600,000 go/no-go decision for the balance.”
Vice mayor Jeff Blubaugh also voted no. He says he’s not against the library, but that he questions whether the top priorities for the city have been decided.
“You look at how much money we’ve spent annually on the library versus how much we've spent on the transportation system," Blubaugh says. "I guess my concern is that I don’t know if I’m comfortable going forward right now, that this is the top priority for the city when we’ve outlined all the other priorities."
Council’s District VI representative Janet Miller was one of the five who voted in support of the next phase. She says creating a 21st Century library that fosters creativity and innovation will be a good investment.
“Its return to our community will be in the form of a better educated work force, enhanced community creativity, more entrepreneurship, a healthy economy and better community prosperity."
Once the new building goes to bid, it will take about two years to complete the construction. So that means Wichita residents might be able to visit the new Central Library in 2018, 12 years after the project started.