Though it’s fine to see Wichita’s leaders debating the future of the Wichita Public Library, it’s important to realize that some of the best-sounding ideas already have been shelved because they would cost more than Wichita is willing to spend. That’s how Wichita settled on the cost-effective – and now seemingly stalled – proposal to build a new Central Library at Second and McLean.
The City Council abruptly pulled back on bonding a new $29 million library last month, reacting to an internal finance report warning about the city’s borrowing capacity. Instead, council members seemed interested in seeking private funding or perhaps some voter-approved revenue stream. They also have a wealth of other ideas for what the library system might do.
On a recent visit to Oklahoma City, Wichita City Council member Jeff Blubaugh was impressed by that countywide Metropolitan Library System, which combines a central service center with strong branches including an $8 million high-tech northwest branch that opened last year.
“They’re really pretty organized down there. They’re utilizing the latest and greatest technology, and that’s where I’d like us to get,” Blubaugh recently told The Eagle.
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But during the extensive master planning that the Wichita Public Library did seven years ago, it became clear that the capital costs necessary to enlarge the branches would made a decentralized system cost-prohibitive. As it is, operations have been centralized as much as possible at the existing Central Library, so that staff at the small branches can concentrate on working with library patrons.
Plus, the Oklahoma City system spends $32 million a year on materials and operation and has another $30 million in reserve, compared with the Wichita Public Library’s $7.9 million budget for 2013.
Others have pointed to the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library as something to aspire to – a big central library with a robust bookmobile program. But where Wichita spends $19.97 per capita on its library system, Topeka spends $86.45. And like Oklahoma City – and unlike Wichita – the Topeka system has a dedicated mill levy to sustain a generous level of spending.
Meanwhile, Wichita’s 46-year-old Central Library isn’t getting any more user- or preservation-friendly, with a basic remodel estimated at $5.3 million and costly Americans With Disabilities Act upgrades needed.
And though some wonder whether digital publishing will make libraries obsolete, not everything will be digitized. E-books are a small portion of library materials now and viewed as a format among many that the Wichita Public Library must deliver in the future.
“We’re being asked to circle back and affirm some of our due diligence,” library board president Steve Roberts acknowledged to The Eagle editorial board last week – noting the board doesn’t have a problem with that.
But as Wichita’s leaders revisit the question of what to do about the public library system, they need to consider the planning that already has occurred. They also should understand that any public library system worthy of the state’s largest city will take ample funding, and the political will to provide it.
For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman