Amid all the big downtown projects, neighborhood libraries need a little love

Wichita’s wish list is getting pretty long.

As construction begins on an $83 million ballpark development on the river, there’s serious talk about a new performing arts center and a modern convention center that could attract more trade shows and consumer events.

Those major projects could do wonders for our city, attracting out-of-town visitors and the revenue they bring with them.

But it’s imperative that leaders not overlook the services Wichita residents need and use regularly — things like roads, parks, public transit and libraries.

As City Council members learned Tuesday, Wichita’s neighborhood branch libraries served nearly 600,000 visitors last year. (That’s not including the more than 250,000 people who visited the new Advanced Learning Library during its first six months of operation.)

Every day in those branch libraries, people use computers to search and apply for jobs. Parents bring children for library story times. Visitors use the fax machines and copiers, research their family histories, gather with friends, read magazines, borrow books and check out movies.

Now those libraries need upgrades, expansions and improvements.

Some small changes would make a big difference. At the Maya Angelou branch in northeast Wichita, the service desk is too tall for youngsters to reach. At the Rockwell branch, the chairs aren’t very comfortable. At the Alford branch, new development at 31st South and Meridian makes it hard to see the library from the street. And Westlink, a bustling branch in the western suburbs, is long overdue for more space and parking.

A proposed library master plan presented Tuesday calls for about $3.7 million in projects for five of Wichita’s six branch libraries. The city’s smallest library — the Linwood branch, in a recreation center near Hydraulic and Mount Vernon — should be moved to a more easily accessible location, the report says.

The best news: This latest plan, drafted by a committee of city and library officials, does not call for shuttering any libraries.

Last summer, a proposed city budget suggested closing the Evergreen and Linwood branches, but Mayor Jeff Longwell smartly rejected that recommendation. Leaders opted to wait for a more comprehensive report on Wichita library usage, priorities and goals.

Now they have it — and they should pledge to keep city libraries updated and thriving.

In addition to significant structural upgrades, that could mean reconsidering longstanding library policies “that may create barriers to library access,” such as fees for transferring materials between branches or overdue fines on children’s materials, the report says.

Wichita’s new downtown library is modern and impressive, and most people can instantly access information from their mobile devices. Even so, branch libraries are “an important and anchoring institution” in the neighborhoods they serve, said library board president Kevin McWhorter.

They’re an essential public service for the people who live here. And they deserve a top spot on our city’s wish list.

Related stories from Wichita Eagle