The Library Board and the $40 Million History Museum

August 22, 2012 at 1:00pm By: Mr. Wilson Posted in The Lincolnite Blog

I’m still not certain why, but last night the Lincoln library board voted to build a $40+ million history museum at the site of Pershing Center. The existing building could be retained, or a new building could be built from scratch for just a few million dollars more.

Why is the library board in the business of building history museums? I’m not sure, to be honest. It seem…

Wait, what? It’s not a museum, but an actual, functioning library? People still use libraries? Huh. How ‘bout that.

That bit of bad humor was brought to you by the realities of the 21st Century. I’ve said it for many years now as buzz has grown about building a new main library in Lincoln that the idea doesn’t stand a chance unless supporters can figure out how to make it relevant to today’s Lincolnites. The present effort doesn’t show any sign of making that happen.

In fact, the latest push to build a new main library is entirely without substance. Literally the only thing the library board has told us is the approximate cost of the building and a specific address. Last night’s vote to forward the proposal to Mayor Beutler came without discussion. The lack of supporting material means that we, the public, get to craft the discussion points. Our imaginations get to generate the narrative. The board has given us the power to make whatever we want out of this proposal.

The board has made a huge mistake.

The City of Lincoln has no fat in its budget. Lincolnites are financially exhausted thanks to the stress of national economic woes, years of arena stress, and even the recent news that Lincoln will ask voters to fund a new stormwater bond issue in November. Local real estate values are flat; gas prices are creeping up again; and it’s not like trips to the grocery store have gotten cheaper.

And the library board has the gall to ask for $40 million to construct a building that few Lincolnites will ever enter and which will house books that few people will ever read?

Some of you will think I’m being unfair, but don’t misunderstand what I’m saying. I’m not saying that a new main library is an inherently bad idea. Rather, I’m pointing out the library board’s failure to lead on this issue. Where’s the innovation? Where’s the excitement? Where’s the marketing oomph that helped promote the “Catalyst” and arena projects? Where’s the Life is Right tie-in? Look at Main Library Vision and Concept Study for yourself. Are you inspired by it? No, of course not! It’s dry and boring. Even the electronic presentation [PDF] prepared by Sinclair Hille Architects is bland and unconvincing.

Look, Lincolnites are funny about how they spend their money. Libraries are far from the top of their list of gotta-have-it expenditures. If we’re going to build a new main library, somebody is going to have to wow us first. Somebody is going to have to explain why a fresh coat of paint and some new carpet at Bennet Martin isn’t good enough. Somebody is going to have to tell us why libraries are still relevant, and how $40 million—and let’s be realistic, it’ll cost more than that—is going to result in something that’s relevant community-wide today and well into the foreseeable future.

Somebody needs to inspire us.

So far the library board has given us little more than a rough description of a fancier warehouse for a bunch of relics few people use. They can and they must do better than that.

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The Comments

Fletch August 22, 2012 at 2:59pm

My family uses the library. We go every three weeks, and all four family members usually come out with books. Some of us with as many as 10 books.

However, I don’t see the appeal of a huge central library branch. I’ve been to Bennet Martin library maybe 5 times in the 27 years I have lived here. Twice when my kids had field trips there with daycare, and once when a family member did a reading there. Not sure, but I imagine maybe one or two other trips.

The location isn’t convenient for me. Parking stinks. The hours are not overly family friendly. We have much better luck at Gere or the Walt branch.

What did it cost to build the Walt branch and its twin on Superior Street? For $40 million, couldn’t we build 2-3 more like that, and spread them around to all quadrants of the city so the books are nearer to the people, and there can be parking lots?

Having become a user of the library much more over the last year, it’s comical to watch how it functions. Let’s say, politely, that it’s not a model of efficiency.

I don’t have an e-reader. I still like to hold a book in my hand. I think for young kids, a book still has more value than a Nook. My kids will read/look at 500 or more books a year between the 2 of them. I don’t see technology completely replacing that in the next few years, but I also can’t see the need for a $40 million Taj Mahal centralized branch to try to keep the illusion that people must go downtown to survive in this city.

Karin Dalziel August 22, 2012 at 5:45pm

I used to live in a city with a fantastic central library, and it was amazing. I went there for weddings, punk shows, plays, computer use, and, yes, books. The children’s area was huge, and had a dedicated story time theatre. It brought the community together. Lincolnites don’t seem very interested in that kind of thing, though.

My main argument for a bigger downtown library is that we need more space for computers, so people without a computer or internet access can participate in public life and apply for jobs. More and more, you can only do these things online. I don’t know if this needs the budget they are asking for, but I do know that it’s really hard to snag a computer at bennet martin, and then you’re booted off pretty quickly during busy times.

I do agree the case needs to be made better.

Matthew Platte August 22, 2012 at 6:13pm

$40 million could purchase more than 100,000 computers with a little left over for wireless access points here and there.

Pat Leach August 22, 2012 at 7:54pm

As Library Director, I’ll limit myself to just the big picture here—

A fantastic central library, as Karin points out, is one of the things that makes a good city a great city.

This city places a huge value on education, and the library system should reflect that.

As we envision a new Main Library for Lincoln, here are some of the things we think are true—

A new Main Library would be seen as the whole city’s library, even though it has a special responsibility to the people of the core of the city

There’ll be more space for children, with an emphasis on learning and developmental play, a space with great family appeal.

There’ll be more space for teens, with an emphasis on the engagement that leads to academic and vocational success.

There’ll be more space for study, such as study rooms and tutoring rooms

There’ll be more space for general community events—our Bennett Martin Library has meeting rooms, but not arranged in a way that promotes use, and there’s demand for this kind of space downtown.

Space for books will be about the same, or will shrink—we’re watching that transition closely.

Space for staff will shrink—we’re streamlining all the time.

As things currently stand, we expect to have a similarly-sized staff in a new building.

We’re working on a plan within our current budget amount to expand the Bennett Martin hours—we believe that our Main Library should be open in the evening.

And yes, Karin, there will be ample computers.

And yes—parking.

The study as it stands will inform our actions going forward—none of it is written in stone. That’s why it’s a “vision and concept.”

We all want Lincoln to be a great city. I see a new Main Library as part of that place.

BigMike August 22, 2012 at 8:45pm

I guess the thing that comes first to my mind when I hear this is that every year we go through the same budget talk of “which library/ies” are we going to need to close due to city budget concerns.  Now they decide that they want to build this huge “main” library.  How many of the other libraries will have to close to make this happen?

BigMike August 22, 2012 at 8:48pm

One thing I have observed on my visits to the current DT library is the number of homeless folks that inhabit the library.  All of the meeting space in the new library could be used as temporary housing as I just can’t imagine all of this space being used frequently.

Pat Leach August 22, 2012 at 8:58pm

BigMIke, while we can never predict the future, I do believe we’re moving away from the deep-cut budget projections of recent years. Our library budget for this first two-year City budget is pretty stable.

Any big venture requires taking a chance—based on how people have responded to new Main Libraries in other cities, I’m confident that we’ll have people.

Homeless people are indeed part of the downtown community—our position is that all members of our community who behave appropriately are welcome in the library.

AdamAnt August 22, 2012 at 11:09pm

I’m a little offended at the tone you take with books. If it were not for books, the ability to read and write and pass this information on, nothing of what we have today would be possible. These “relics” as you call them, are cherished by many people, and it’s only the short-sighted few that see them as useless.

A new main library would be a wonderful thing, especially if it were utilized better as a center for the community. One of the reasons I don’t visit the Martin library is because of how old and unpleasant it is in there. I feel like I’m intruding, rather than being welcomed into a place of learning. Having a state-of-the-art facility that offers more than a stained carpet and outdated fixtures would go a long way to getting this lincolnite back into the dt library.

I understand your frustration with the way government works. They charge us taxes for the privilege of living here, and then use the money unwisely. But, the library system, and education in all it’s myriad forms, is a worthy place to put our cash.

Jane August 23, 2012 at 3:52am

Fletch, I understand that the location of Bennet Martin may not be convenient for you however for me it is the most convenient location. I am not one of the 3,000 folks that live in the downtown quadrant of Lincoln but I am one of the 28,000 people that work downtown. I go to the library at least once a week to pick up and return books, DVDs, audio books and CDs over my lunch hour or break. During the summer it

norm August 23, 2012 at 6:28am

I actually really like this idea.
Too bad it was presented so incomplete and poorly.

Provided it’s done right, a nice multi-uselibrary at Pershing integrated into centennial mall could be fantastic (please keep the mosaic mural).

I would be as skeptical as you Mr. Wilson, but I’ve visited friends in other cities the past few years whose libraries have really adapted well to a post-book era.
They still have books and stuff, but also have things like performance spaces, galleries and classrooms and host really interesting events and activities.
In a week-long visit I went to the library more than I had Bennet Martin in a decade.
(though Bennet Martin is like a homeless shelter now, all I hear of it is being accosted, or seeing people exposing themselves, or having stuff stolen)

The $40m is $10m less than Gateway’s food court expansion. Don’t these library projects usually attrct private donors as well?

Fletch August 23, 2012 at 12:48pm

It’s not just about me. I can still go to Gere or Walt or wherever. If there are 3,000 folks living downtown, and 28,000 working there, that’s 31,000 assuming all of them (way false assumption, by the way) transact all of their business, or would in the case of a library, downtown. That’s investing $40 million for the ease and convenience of 12% of a population of 250,000.

Fletch August 23, 2012 at 1:58pm

With all due respect, I am less convinced than before the posts were added to this thread. We should invest $40 million in order to have less space for staff, and less space for books? Then why do we need a bigger building?

We should invest $40 for more meeting space? Then why did the city sell the 46,000 square foot Burnham Yates Conference Center - also conveniently located downtown, for $580,000? That doesn’t seem like a good trade-off.

For $40 million, there could be 160 new, and nice, coffee houses built around the city. Each could hold meetings.

If it’s computers, $40 million would buy 40,000 decent laptops, or more than 60,000 iPads to distribute throughout the community.

What’s the plan to magically add parking that’s not near Pershing now?

I’m not trying to be a jerk. Read my first post. I like the library. My entire family uses the library. This is just not a time when the city is flush with money, and this seems like much more of a “want” and dream library facility, rather than a “need.”

Mr. T August 23, 2012 at 2:32pm

I think this is a fabulous idea and a new central library would be well-used by both downtown workers and residents (of which I am both). Just on an anecdotal level, it appears to me that the central library is heavily used, not just for book lending but for plenty of other activities (e.g. educational lectures, the free tax preparation services that were offered earlier in the year, etc). An expansion would be justified to meet the levels of service the location offers, and align with the needs of residents in what is (I am assuming) the most densely populated sector of the city.

I think a new downtown library would be a significant boost in the quality of life for the immediate area and the city in general. Great idea!

Pat Leach August 23, 2012 at 3:19pm

Fletch, the lower level of Pershing could be re-purposed to provide parking—that’s one of the advantages of that site.

Do the math August 23, 2012 at 5:37pm

$40 million on computers? Those computers will be useless or broken in 3 years. $40 million on a modern, central Library that will serve generations of families for decades to come is a much sounder and better investment.

Fletch August 23, 2012 at 6:19pm

I know this. I am not advocating it being spent on computers. Others have pointed out one advantage would be more computers for more users. My point was if that was truly the goal, look how many computers one could buy.

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