editorial (2006-04)

Where’s the Central Library Going?

Maybe to Church and State?

Where’s the Central Library Going?

Prospects for a new central library for Knoxville and Knox County may seem dim at the moment, but a couple of things are happening that could bring that issue to the fore again this year.

Space is at a premium in the Lawson McGhee Library on Church Avenue, and usage of that fine facility continues to soar. The county, whose mayor, Mike Ragsdale, has been among those who recognize the desirability of a new library downtown, has come into possession of an ideal site. The former News Sentinel building’s vacant property at Church and State Street has been transferred to the county as part of a swap that put the future Transit Center property two blocks north on State in the city’s hands.

Running for reelection, the county mayor is not likely to advocate a project the scope of a new library this season, but his administration is seeking information and ideas from the Knoxville Area Chamber Partnership, the Central Business Improvement District, and individual business and property owners in the vicinity of the old News Sentinel site on their view of the best use of that location.

“Let’s face it,” says Mike Arms, Ragsdale’s chief of staff. “There’s more creativity and imagination in the private sector than there is in the City County Building. Let’s engage that creativity. We have a prime property there, a half block off Gay Street, and the redevelopment of Gay Street is proceeding at an unprecedented pace.”

Arms says the idea of a library on that site could be a good one, but he cites examples in other cities where private uses, such as offices and residential condominiums on the upper floors, and retail outlets at street level, have been incorporated into library structures, putting the construction of a library building on a larger scale, but also paying some of its way and putting part of its building back onto the tax rolls. “Let’s let some of these ideas be kicked around by other interests in the downtown,” he says.

Such a shared concept could put momentum back into the library project. Getting more of the private sector involved in the process could build steam behind the proposal that was lost in a squabble over the wheel-tax increase that derailed it two years ago.

“All I can say is that there’s a need for space here,” says Larry Frank, the county’s library director, from his office at Lawson McGhee, “but a new library has been tabled….”

The current Lawson McGhee Library building was built in the late 1960s to serve a county only about half as populous as Knox County is today. Since then, computer systems and terminals have been squeezed into a retrofitted structure. For years, storage has been a significant problem at the library, where even relatively recent books are put into deep storage in the basement.

Even visitors are feeling the squeeze. In the middle of a weekday afternoon last month, the daughter of a Metro Pulse editor went to the Lawson McGhee Library with a friend to study for an exam. They couldn’t find two empty chairs together in the library, so they went elsewhere downtown to study.

The growth of downtown residential property and the demonstrated demand for more has brought more people into the library and will continue to do so as the library can accommodate them.

“My emphasis is on programs and on reorganizing the space we have to enhance those programs,” says Franks. “We have been looking at some extremely creative options.” Arms says that among the practical options available is the conversion of the library’s third-floor administrative space to public uses, arranging for administrative offices in other buildings.

The library system in the county is well developed, with a very good array of branch libraries that are becoming ever-more dependent on a central library for its storage and dissemination capabilities. A central library is a vast storehouse of information, with a capacity for books, CDs, DVDs, reference materials and the computer network necessary for the public to access those materials there and through its 17 branches. It also needs space allotted to the walk-in public, and that’s where the current facility falls far short.

A new, attractive downtown library, designed for the changing demands of the 21st Century, with adequate parking facilities, near the new transit center and adjacent to the downtown’s residential core, is a necessity for maintaining the vitality of its branches as well as its own patrons.

Maggie Carini, president of the Friends of the Knox County Public Library organization and a backer of the new central library concept, says her group is “making a concentrated outreach effort to establish a Friends’ presence at each of the 17 branches” to promote branch usage and illustrate the need for a strong central library to serve the system.

The Friends’ organization is conducting a membership drive and annual book sale next month in the community room of the Candy Factory at the World’s Fair Park downtown. Rachel Craig, the Friends of the Library’s coordinator, says the sale has been described as the largest of its kind in the Southeast. She says 36,000 books were sold last year, and at least that many or more will be on sale this year, from Feb. 26 through March 4. The first Sunday of the sale, when pickings are best, is for Friends’ members only, but individual memberships at $15 or family memberships at $25 will be available at the door.

Join, get some great book deals, and get behind the move toward a new central library. Your children and grandchildren will be glad you did.