Opinion Columns & Blogs

A new library is exciting, but a minute to appreciate what Wichita’s leaving

Interior of the Central Library when it opened in 1967.
Interior of the Central Library when it opened in 1967.

Cynthia Berner’s favorite spot is on the mezzanine.

She can choose to look north or south. Either way gives her a view of stacks and stacks of books on the first floor, along with Central Library patrons reading or working on laptops.

“The natural light coming into the building, the large, open spaces,” said Berner, the director of libraries since 2000. “It still is an amazing building.”

But in its 52nd year, with its smallish predecessor across Main Street and its shiny successor five blocks over the river, the Central Library is closing. Sunday is the final day for the public.

“It’s beyond its use for a library,” Berner said with a hint of sadness. “It’s tired.”

Part of the wear is from the city holding off on some maintenance items, knowing the Advance Learning Library opens next month at 2nd Street and McLean Boulevard.

More that that, the building that won a national architecture award soon after it opened in 1967 couldn’t keep up with the functions of a 21st Century library.

Sam Frey of Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey architects was just out of college in 1966 when he joined the firm designing the library. Partners Robert Schaefer and Bob Eflin emphasized a new “brutalism” approach that valued material for what it was.

“Concrete was concrete, wood was wood, steel was steel,” Frey said. “Very straightforward. That is a concrete building, but it’s designed in such a way that it’s very refined and finessed.”

Frey uses adjectives such as iconic, beautiful and graceful to describe the library. And discreet. He thinks most people don’t know there’s a basement garage because it was designed to be out of view.

That garage will play a large part in moving tens of thousands of items to the Advanced Learning Library. It will take months to get everything out of the Central Library, and an auction is planned for items left behind.

It’s not that the Central Library became old — the purpose of libraries outgrew the library.

“People were very proud of this building and it served us well until we started getting crowded and the business of libraries changed,” Berner said.

Libraries became more than about books and tables. Visual learners, people who learned through physical activity, and learners within a group needed more.

Maybe the best way to visualize how library needs have changed: Square footage in the new library increases by only 18 percent over the old library. But much more will be open to the public, and those areas have multiple uses compared to the single-use areas of the Central Library.

Infrastructure eventually became a problem, too. Not enough electrical outlets for the internet age. Library regulars knew there are year-round warm and cold spots.

Berner, who once sat in the library with others to ring in Y2K and make sure computer systems functioned properly, will be working on the final day Sunday. She’ll begin to pack up her office and be ready to answer patrons’ questions.

Her fondest memory of the library she’s leaving? Berner pauses and tears begin to form.

She can’t wait to get into the new library, yet this place.…

Berner says she carries the memories of the people who were here before her — librarians, volunteers, directors.

“There’s something about having to overcome difficulties, it brings you closer together,” Berner said. “When former library boards started to talk about the idea of a new central library, a lot of people in the community couldn’t understand that because our people made the challenges invisible.”

The old library, as we will call it beginning next month, is ready for a new chapter. The city has made no announcement of its future, though an expansion of Bob Brown Expo Hall has been discussed.

Frey thinks the library could become an entrance to expanded convention space. He’s ready to fight to keep the building a part of downtown.

“The outstanding, distinctive buildings give a community its own personality,” Frey said. “This building is one of those.”

Kirk Seminoff: 316-268-6278, @kseminoff

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