Leaning toward a new Columbia Heights library?

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If one is counting votes, and if we’re reading the signals right as to what those votes might be, Columbia Heights taxpayers, owners of one of only four independent libraries in the metropolitan area, could embark on finding the money to replace the current library. And a Northeast resident whose job is to be her firm’s government—and particularly, libraries—expert, has helped lay the groundwork.

Cindy McCleary of Leo A. Daly, an architecture and engineering firm, has designed 23 libraries. She told the City Council April 8 that communication preferences are changing, but not replacing the book. “Historical material does not translate well…with the pace of change, there is a need to preserve history. The way libraries are being used is more people centric.”

Mayor Gary Peterson, before telling the assembled group after a long presentation that the council would “take it under advisement,” agreeing to take the issue up again on May 13, said that he was among the people who said he thought books were a thing of the past, but then changed his thinking. “The community has spoken and said we want a library.” The assessment was made in 1999 that the current facility is too small and puts children in poorly lit and damp quarters, “and here it’s 2013 and still pondering. If we can work it out, by golly, elected people have to make decisions.”

Council Member Bruce Nawrocki said the issue should go to a public referendum. Council Members Tammera Diehm and Bobby Williams were emphatically in favor and Donna Schmitt sounded on the fence.

A citizen task force chaired by Dave Larson examined and found need to replace the library. The 1999 needs assessment determined the facility was undersized with 12,000 users; there are 18,312 active library cards now. Their report calls for a facility 20,500 to 24,000 square feet on a 2.5 to 3 acre site. It should be one floor, and be constructed in the near future while interest rates are low. If done in conjunction with a new city hall, meeting rooms could be shared, they said.

They continued by touring existing libraries that had recently been improved, and touring 11 possible sites in town, coming up with three leading possibilities: the Mady’s Bowling site at 39th and Central, land at 42nd Avenue from Jackson to Van Buren Street NE (both owned by the city) and the former Kmart site near Grand Central Lofts, north of 47th Avenue, close to four public schools, but not owned by Columbia Heights. McCleary also showed the footprint that would be needed if building on the current site, saying some commercial and residential buildings would have to be cleared.

McCleary added detail on current conditions, what works in up-to-date libraries, demographics and library trends. She said functional libraries’ spaces now prioritize people, yet promote self-service. Self-service checkouts now filter 80 percent of the circulation, freeing up library staff for questions and tech training. “Libraries aren’t quiet anymore, they become live/work spaces with a coffee shop atmosphere (with some quiet spaces). Children’s areas are laid out for children, they’re not mini adult spaces.”

Daylight, computers, visibility to and by adults are important. Spaces are “seating heavy” with laptop bars, bringing the desk out into the mix and integrating tech and books. Users type notes from physical books at the ends of the rows. At the current Heights library, the way the building is constructed makes this type of wiring impossible.

McCleary said that at the Heights library now, about 1,000 of the 14,000 square feet in the library are visible from the service desk. Industry standard is to be able to see 60 to 75 percent from the desk.

Responding to the presentation, much was said about the library being key to attracting and keeping young families in the city.

Forty-seven percent of the materials circulated are children’s materials, more than any of the other comparable libraries, McCleary said; the average is 40 percent. A regional library held 383 programs such as book clubs or children’s storytimes, per year; Heights 343, and the next closest held 229 programs. “There is high attendance at programs,” and the funding per capita shows Heights “slightly underfunded” though similar to the comparable libraries once Stillwater, which skewed the data, was taken out.

What about becoming part of a regional system, asked resident Dolores Strand. Peterson said “it was determined that would be of no benefit to us, and there is no guarantee that we would have a library in Columbia Heights.”

Resident Bob Odden said he’s a Friends of the Library member and likes volunteering, likes the library as it is with its homey feel. He said for the city to acquire any more debt for any reason would be destroying jobs. “And the interest rate will need to go up for the recovery,” it’s not such a good time to be committing to spend money. He called for a referendum and received applause from a small group.

Cliff Shedlov said the community has been getting better with the addition of the new fire and police station, implying that a new library would have a similar effect. “To get the money you could call it the library stadium, the state pays for it.” A larger group applauded that remark.

Then the mayor said that “we’re not supposed to allow applause either way, so I should remind you to keep your energies to yourself.” Catherine Vesley, a library board member, thanked everyone, and said the library board made a point of not influencing the task force.

Patricia Sowada chairs the library board, with Nancy Hoium as Vice-Chair and Vesley as Secretary. Barbara Tantanella and Stephen Smith are members at large and Diehm is the council liaison.

In addition to David Larson, Chair, and Tricia Conway, Vice-Chair, task force members are Jane Bona, Kate Collopy, Marna Gomez, Nile Harper, Halimo Ismail, Mike McGee, Muhidin Warfa, and Colleen Werdien. Their charge is: “The Library Task force is to be a fact-finding organization to explore the possible replacement of the library building either with a single building or the library and city hall with a combined facility.”

After the library report, council members went on to talk about enforcing the jaywalking ordinance with $115 tickets, how to report a pothole, and an idea that the city should consider building a dog park, or several.