Do city leaders still think Wichita needs a new Central Library – or even view a full-service public library system as a core municipal responsibility anymore? Citizens deserve to know.
What happens at the Tuesday meeting of the City Council will be telling. The agenda includes recommended approval of initial contracts totaling more than half a million dollars with two architectural firms for a new $29 million Central Library. But eight years after the council approved the library master plan including the new facility and six years after the city acquired property for it at Second and McLean, the City Council and the library board seem seriously at odds about the future not only of a new Central Library but of the entire system.
The recession slowed the decision making on a new Central Library, which was appropriate.
And the passage of time has not sharpened the relevance of the library board’s prized master plan, which was completed a year before the first Amazon Kindle or iPhone was sold.
But it’s time for the City Council and library board to find a shared path forward.
Inaction isn’t making it easier to care properly for the collections at the 47-year-old current Central Library, which has infrastructure, accessibility and space problems.
And it’s fine for City Council members and others to dream big about a high-tech advanced learning center or a decentralized library system. But either comes with a high potential cost, and the Wichita Public Library is sorely underfunded as it is compared with its regional peers.
If library usage numbers don’t seem to justify a big capital investment, either downtown or at the branches, that surely has something to do with how limited the system’s hours are, especially since a 2012 reduction to save money. The city’s visible commitment to libraries diminished further when the Planeview branch within Colvin Elementary School closed in November, leaving southeast Wichita even more underserved.
Although a new Central Library has been mentioned as a possible priority that could benefit from a sales-tax hike, a strategic study of quality-of-life enhancements that was among four presented to the council last week hinted that the project could be postponed further.
Yet the Wichita Public Library won Library Journal’s 2014 LibraryAware Community Award for the strength of its partnerships and civic engagement and for becoming a “coalition builder for larger community goals.” The magazine’s story on the Wichita Public Library was headlined, “Engaging Everyone in Town.”
Does “everyone” include members of the City Council? Does City Hall still care about the mission of the Wichita Public Library, which is to provide “collections and services that inform, entertain and enrich the quality of life in Wichita”? City and library leaders need to come together to answer those questions.