As I write, we are approaching the nadir day of our years light. Sometimes darkness feels heavy, but it carries with it the latent excitement that comes with the knowledge of longer days to come; an excitement that mirrors the anticipation of the reopening of Webber Park Library. Things hoped for often come. Let’s take a look back.
The story of Webber Park Library goes back almost 100 years; the legacy gift of Charles and Mary Webber, in memory of their deceased, only child, John. The library opened on January 1, 1910 as the Camden Branch Library, and was renamed Webber Library in 1939. When the library was rebuilt at the original site in 1980, it honored their bequest that the library should operate continuously near its original location. A portrait of young John Deere Webber looked out over the library and the park pond until December 29, 2006 when lack of funds, and lack of will, resulted in the closing of Webber Park Library, SE Library and Roosevelt Library. It’s no secret that Minneapolis has been hit hard by state cuts to Local Government Aid (LGA). From 2003 to 2007, the Minneapolis Public Libraries lost almost $3 million in LGA funds. In an attempt to respond to the cuts, the Minneapolis Library Trustees held public meetings, presenting possible options for dealing with the loss of revenue. In the end, the trustees chose the alternative labeled “consistent service throughout,” which meant all operating libraries would be open five days a week for 40 hours. For Webber Park, Southeast and Roosevelt Libraries it meant they would be consistently closed.
I don’t think any of the political players were prepared for what happened next. They expected some public descent, but the response was loud, broad and deep. Citizens of the City of Minneapolis showed up at meeting, after meeting. Petitions were signed. Letters were written. Emails were sent by the hundreds. City Council Member Barb Johnson said the closing of Webber Park Library would be the “disgrace of our city.” At a library board meeting State Representative Joe Mullery tried to persuade his political peers that closing Webber Park Library would be a reversed Robin Hood, where the poor are taxed to keep libraries in wealthier neighborhoods open. The Victory Neighborhood Association sent a symbolic “book with no words” to members of the city council and to library trustees. Citizens held meetings at the libraries and in their homes. It looked for a while as if the city would come up with enough extra funds to keep the three libraries open, but in the end it just wasn’t enough and the three libraries were closed. It appeared the only consolation was the word “temporary” attached to their closings.
If lack of will contributed to the closing of the three libraries, certainly the force of will has contributed to the solution that will result in their reopening. In one year’s time, forces came together to create a consolidated library system between Hennepin County and the City of Minneapolis. This was a feat that required enabling legislation from the State of Minnesota. It required the cooperation of the City Council, Mayor R.T. Rybak, the Minneapolis Library Trustees, and the County Commissioners. There were governance changes, labor negotiations, transfer of real estate and other assets, and a myriad of other legal matters to be worked out. In the world of politics, this seemed nothing short of a miracle.
The Minneapolis Library Trustees voted to approve the consolidation in November; a vote that put them out of a job. They held their final board meeting on December 19. Former MPL Director Kit Hadley recognized each library trustee personally. In her remarks to Trustee Alan Hooker, Hadley stated that she was thankful that the importance of individual communities, in particular North Minneapolis and its relationship with Webber Park, had been made loud and clear. Each trustee was awarded the Minerva Award and a resolution was presented to each on behalf of their public service. Minneapolis Library employees with 30 or more years of service were also recognized with a resolution and the Minerva Award. North area supervisor, Jerry Blue was among those recognized for his years of service. In response to the changing dynamics of employment, Blue commented in his storytelling fashion “We’ll just shake it off, stomp it down, and rise up higher.”
On December 18, the Hennepin County Board approved the consolidation of the Hennepin County suburban and Minneapolis library systems, effective January 1; it was approved by the Minneapolis City Council and Mayor Rybak at their December 21 meeting. In an unexpected coup for Webber Park Library, the county approved $15 million in funding to replace the Webber Park Library building. Planning for the new library will begin in 2008 and construction is expected to start in 2009. Fittingly, the approval of the consolidation by the City Council came at the time of the winter solstice. At 1:08 a.m. on December 22, the light began to overtake the darkness.
As a result, Webber Park Library will reopen its doors on Thursday, January 3, 2008; two days after its 98th birthday. The new library hours will be noon to 8 p.m. on Tuesday and Thursday, and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday. In addition to four more hours per week, there will be six more computers, for a total of 12. A festive “Grand Reopening” of Webber Park Library is planned for Saturday, January 12 at 10 a.m. There will be food, music, ice skating on the pond, a bonfire and more. Plan to set some time aside to come to the library on that day. Be sure to look for John Deere Webber. He should be back in his rightful place, overlooking the library and the pond.
At some distant time, history will judge our actions. The cycle of time will tell if the consolidation was indeed the best way to preserve a legacy and a community asset. For now, it seems well. The book sent by the Victory Neighborhood Association to the City Council and Library Board had empty pages, but the cover was not. It read, “An underprivileged community without a library, is like a book without words, a mere shell of hope in search of the words to imagine, the ideas to inspire. Please help us write a better future for North Minneapolis. The Victory Neighborhood Board of Directors.” Thank goodness for hope. The writing continues.