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‘Library for the future’ soon will be a reality

Tuesday, March 1, 2016 by Eva Ruth Moravec

A decade ago, Austin voters approved a $90 million bond to build a new central library that would better fit the growing city’s needs.

Another $30 million later, the “library for the future” is nearly complete. The 200,000-square-foot facility – with a rooftop garden, 300-seat outdoor amphitheater, art gallery, restaurant, cooking demonstration area and a dozen meeting rooms, all wired with the latest technology and incredibly environmentally friendly – is set to open at the Seaholm Power Plant in November.

At a recent City Council meeting, Mayor Steve Adler applauded city staff and architects Lake|Flato and Shepley Bulfinch for keeping the library, which he calls “very exciting,” on budget. He said that although voters were asked only for a $90 million bond, the total project “was always about $120 (million) to $125 million. This project, at the last minute, was slashed by $30 million before we put it to voters because there were other projects.”

Council Member Don Zimmerman told his peers on the dais that he wanted “to introduce a round of fiscal reality,” adding that processes such as the one Adler described are “how we get in trouble with the voters, because we’re not truthful about how much things cost.”


According to Public Works Department Director Howard Lazarus, the city might be on the hook for another $1.9 million due either to changes in the fire code or to design modifications.

“We have not yet negotiated with them,” Lazarus said in an interview with the Austin Monitor. He said that savings in nonvalue-added items, for which contractors are responsible, would cover the changes and delay claims. “It’s a risk right now, but it’s our belief that the two will counterbalance each other out.”

If not, Lazarus said, staff has identified $1.5 million in work that can be deferred until the balance is worked out.

Lazarus said that after the funding was made available, Council approved the design contract in December 2008 and ground was broken in May 2013. “We had to reimagine what the library was going to be.”

Initially, he said, the idea was to triple the size of the existing library, but the space available at 710 W. Cesar Chavez St. isn’t large enough for that. After soliciting input from library users at the existing 110,000-square-foot facility at 800 Guadalupe St., Director of Libraries Brenda Branch said staff “was given several mandates from the community.” Those mandates included increased parking, a larger youth area and technology – but in addition to, not instead of, books.

At the two-story library on a recent weekday afternoon, writer Eddie Chuculate echoed that sentiment. He said he has visited several modern libraries, such as those in San Diego and Denver. “I’m a library person,” he said. “The new building with the community space and the public space is great, but not at the sacrifice of book space. That defeats the purpose.”

Branch said the collection at the new six-story library will be expanded, and parking will be increased from about 35 to 200 spaces. But new elements will appear, too: an innovation lab with a 3D printer, a wide range of technology devices and personnel who are well-versed in using them, and lots of flexible space, among others.

“There’s a huge demand in this community for free meeting space,” Branch said. “We very much want this to be a community gathering place, and it’s designed with that in mind.”

On advice from consultant Joan Frye Williams, who describes herself as a library futurist, Branch and others dictated a design that Branch expects will eventually triple circulation. As of last March, there were 524,000 registered borrowers.

“It’s not just a guess, it’s based on other people’s experience,” Branch said. “A bigger collection and a lot more attractions mean circulation and attendance will grow.”

The increase in customers and tasks demands more manpower, Branch said. This year’s library budget was $42 million — which included a $1.8 million increase covering 48 new full-time positions and six months of operating costs. Last year, the department’s budget was $37.3 million.

New staff positions include security guards and custodians who will make $35 an hour and someone to handle rentals. All of the facility’s spaces are available for rent, with rates ranging from $300 for two hours in the catering kitchen to $2,400 for the use of the entire first floor for eight hours.

Julie Todaro, the president-elect of the American Library Association and the dean of library services at Austin Community College, said kitchens are among the most popular – albeit uncustomary – items in demand at new libraries.

“Now, libraries are places to discover and experiment,” Todaro said. “It’s a far cry from what it was even 20 years ago, when you came in, you picked up a book, you went to story time and you went home.”

People learn in different ways, and libraries should aim to accommodate all learners, Todaro said, even though making that transition can sometimes be difficult.

“It takes some education, and Austin’s been no different,” she said. “But Austin is a real central place for learning, and they really need to provide space for that.”

This story has been corrected to reflect the fact that, while it will cost patrons renting a space $35 per hour for security and custodial services, that is not what the employees are paid.

Photo of new library construction and rendering of library courtesy of Austin Public Library.

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