Patrons hope to save community library

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The Southeast Community Library is up for a $3 million renovation in 2007, but the Minneapolis Public Library Board has been in the planning process for months. That has some neighbors worried it might not happen at all, or worse, could be a sign the library won’t be around for long.

Southeast Library’s head librarian, Eric Heideman, said renovations could increase the library’s disability access, but at this point they are “not actively moving forward.”

“It’s possible that closing Southeast might come up again,” he said.

The Minneapolis Public Library Board has come close to closing the library at Fourth Street and 13th Avenue Southeast before. The most recent close call was in 2003, when the board considered closing the Dinkytown-area library and three others to stave off an operating budget shortfall.

Instead the board shortened the hours of 14 libraries, including the central library downtown, and cut staff.

Kathleen Reilly, a resident of southeast Minneapolis and a delegate of the Southeast Library Taskforce, said she was eager for planning to begin.

“The longer we’re on hold, the less hopeful I am that it’ll get done,” she said.

She would like to see not only her group be part of the planning process but also students get involved, Reilly said.

A survey commissioned by Dinkytown businesses and the three Southeast neighborhoods (Marcy-Holmes, Prospect Park and Southeast Como) showed about a third of the library’s users are University students or faculty members, Reilly said. The study will be published at the onset of planning, she said.

Teresa Jensen, project manager of community libraries capital projects, said the University will be invited to take part in community meetings later this summer.

“We want to know what the community wants in the library, whether that’s more computers, a business center or more fiction,” Jensen said.

The library could use renovation money to bring the building up to code as well. The library lacks an elevator to allow easy wheelchair access to the basement meeting room.

One of the simplest indicators of a library system’s financial situation is the availability to the public. Southeast Library is open only 24 hours each week: noon to 8 p.m. Monday and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday and Friday.

“Most major metropolitan communities have better hours than us,” Heideman said. “I’m hoping that it won’t get worse, (that) it’ll get better. In a few years, all the libraries will be open six days a week.”

The board is analyzing the library system to estimate the cost of operating every library six days a week, said Library Board Director Kit Hadley. The libraries run on a $21 million operating budget.

Hadley said the board won’t be able to make any difficult decisions until the city approves a budget for 2007.

“We don’t expect there to be any radical changes, but will the next five-year plan project a continued decline (in library funding) relative to other city services?” Hadley said. “There’s no denying that these are very real issues that are on the table.”

If the library were to close, the building could be sold and razed. Ralph Rapson, the architect who designed the building (originally a credit union), said tearing down the library would be “ridiculous.”

“It’s one of my favorite buildings,” said Rapson, who also designed the original Guthrie Theater and the Rarig Center on the University’s West Bank.

Rapson said his Minneapolis architecture firm, Ralph Rapson and Associates, would at least like to work with the library board to renovate the building.

“In fact, if they were to sell it, we might even be interested,” Rapson said.

The building has “quirky qualities,” said College of Design Dean Tom Fisher. He said it was the first Modern building in Dinkytown and was designed, even as a credit union, to be flexible.

“The idea of a bank and a library is very similar: You don’t want people walking off with money or books,” Fisher said.

Terry Ball of Minneapolis graduated from the University in 1974. He often used the library as a student and returns whenever he meets with someone in Dinkytown.

“If I’m waiting for somebody, I occupy my time with something here,” Ball said Friday morning as he leafed through a newspaper.

Colin Hamilton has served as executive director of the Friends of the Minneapolis Public Library for the past six years. He’s seen libraries skirt closure before and said the current situation does not look much better.

“The bottom line is that the library operating budget at this point is not nearly sufficient to support the library system as it exists, nor does there seem to be a lot of will on the part of city officials to change it,” Hamilton said. “If people (at Southeast) are nervous, it’s because they’re paying attention.”