Library must change, too

A dozen years into the 21st century, Wichita has a Central Library designed around the needs of the mid-1960s. As of Tuesday, though, Wichita also has a sound, flexible strategy for getting a new facility actually designed, funded and built at Second and McLean. That’s a welcome development.

A 2007 plan to open a $38 million building by 2012 was deferred in the capital improvement program because of the economy and the city’s budget problems. Motivated by that disconnect between the vision and the funding, library and city leaders wisely have opted for a new approach.

With the Wichita City Council’s 6-0 blessing Tuesday, the Ohio-based firm HBM Architects will proceed toward a schematic design for a building that can start smaller than originally envisioned and be expanded in phases.

Like the delays to this point, the resizing of the dream of a new Central Library can be seen as an unflattering reflection of the community’s priorities.

But it’s also an opportunity to ensure not only that the city finally gets moving on a new facility, but that it is a perfect fit for the high-tech and multimedia realities of the future. The focus in the early phase will be on addressing the immediate needs for space and efficient operation, something that will help the library systemwide. The Wichita Public Library Foundation also expects to pursue private dollars to enhance the project.

One big risk in this approach is that the first phase will end up being the only one, because of a lack of funding, political will or both.

Library backers need to keep the message clear and strong going forward that the plan is to give the community the 21st-century downtown library it requires and deserves, not to build something as small and cheaply as possible and leave it at that.

They’ll also need to keep up the effort to educate the community on why a library built in 1967 is so outdated now, and where a library system fits into a digitized age of e-books and smartphones.

In some ways, the new Central Library would be the opposite of the cramped 90,000-square-foot status quo, whose concrete design has proved costly and challenging to update, heat, cool, and use for events, meetings and school tours. Valuable historical documents are kept in the basement, without the proper climate control. Restrooms are woefully inadequate. The library even shares some engineering infrastructure with Century II, which no longer seems efficient.

“Times have changed. The needs of the community have changed,” Tom Engelmann, president of the library board, told The Eagle editorial board this week.

Meanwhile, on a national level, “library usage is higher than it’s ever been,” architect Dan Meehan told the editorial board.

Revisiting the library vision will make it easier to align the times, the needs and the city’s budget reality, and move a new downtown library from wish list to riverfront.

For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman