CEDAR RAPIDS — The world of the printed word is changing almost as fast as construction crews can string electrical wire or hang and paint sheet rock.
As a result, deciding what to put in Cedar Rapids’s new $46-million public library downtown, now under construction and slated to open in a year, is far from a simple task.
After all, how many stacks of shelves does a bricks-and-mortar library need when the digital world delivers e-books on command to an e-reader such as the Kindle or Nook or iPad?
“You can make a brave new universe where everything is in ‘e’ and nothing is in any traditional paper format,” said Bob Pasicznyuk, Cedar Rapids’s library director. “I’ve gone round and round with that myself.”
Pasicznyuk and the city’s library board of trustees have been working for four years on the new library construction project — ever since water from the city’s flood of June 2008 ruined the city’s former library, across First Street SE from the Cedar River.
Since the flood, too, Barnes and Noble has brought out its Nook e-reader, Amazon.com has upgraded its Kindle reader and iPad has ushered in the electronic tablet era. In other words, the ground under the library’s plans has been shifting even as the plans were put in place and construction on the library across Fourth Avenue SE from Greene Square Park began this year.
“I’d be highly surprised if the ‘e’ environment does nothing to us,” Pasicznyuk said. “That would be odd. I think it’s just untenable that it’s not going to affect our business.”
Equally hard to imagine, he noted, is that the traditional paper book will vanish from the scene.
“It’s not just going from one to the other and, like, next year there are no (paper) books and we’re on ‘e,’” he said. “We’re in the middle of a transition and, in life, I’ve always found the transitional to be particularly challenging.
“And that’s where we are.”
Pasicznyuk noted that the new library of 94,000 square feet is about 9,000 square feet larger than the flood-hit former site built in 1985. However, much of the additional space comes because of the new library’s larger, 200-plus-seat auditorium.
The new library’s space, he added, will be flexible so the library can modify its collection and equipment as the times and customers demand.
Before the 2008 flood, the downtown library had about 300,000 items, including movies, and about 40 computers in its physical collection in the downtown library and another 18,000 items and a few computers at its west-side branch.
A year from now, the library expects to house up to 225,000 items and 100 computers downtown and another 50,000 items and 20 computers in its west-side branch.
But Pasicznyuk cautioned against getting bogged down in the numbers. The new library is as much a “community center” as a warehouse with stacks of books, he emphasized.
Susan Craig, director of the Iowa City Public Library, called the idea of public library as community center “a very accurate” characterization. She added that it’s easy to know what most will fill up a new public library — “It’s people.”
Craig said the Iowa City library had more than 760,000 visits in the past year, not counting people who came to the library to attend the more than 2,000 public meetings in the library’s five meeting rooms.
“That says something about the need in the community for space for people to still get together face to face and have a meeting,” she said. “And I think that’s a very important community center role that public libraries continue to provide.”
Libraries, she said, also offer convenient access to technology for people who can’t afford it. Providing public use of computers is no different from allowing access to the encyclopedia 25 years ago for people who couldn’t afford one at home, she figured. In addition, libraries give people a chance to “browse and hang out” with other people, what Craig calls “a part of the culture of what we do today and how we live.”
“They might walk out the door with three books, they might walk out with a movie, they might leave with nothing,” she pointed out. “But they had a certain experience that’s important and pleasurable to them.
“And I think it’s good that public libraries provide that.”
Cedar Rapids’s Pasicznyuk noted that Cedar Rapids’s new library comes with more than a big auditorium. There’s also a 175-seat meeting room, which divides in two depending on use; 15 other civic spaces; and a large children’s programming room, which he calls “the parents’ first classroom with their child.”
“And all those have little to do with whether we have a physical collection (of library books) or not,” Pasicznyuk said.
STACKING THE SHELVES
The library’s Collection Management Team has been at work for months determining what content to house in the new library.
The library is working with a budget of $7.4 million, which is the amount awarded to the city by the Federal Emergency Management Agency for contents lost in the flood. About $4 million of the amount will be used to replace books and movies with most of the remainder going to replace furniture and equipment.
The new library’s stacks will include about 5,000 items saved from the 2008 flood and about half of the 110,000 items now at the city’s temporary library at Westdale Mall. The rest of the books currently at the mall site will move to the city’s new permanent west-side branch site in a part of a former Target store across Williams Boulevard SW from the mall.
The library director estimated that the library will spend another half-million dollars for “e” content — a dollar amount that will include 100 or so e-readers to loan out to library patrons.
Pasicznyuk said only a few big-city libraries as well as some university libraries, with giant amounts of storage space, can seek to be repositories of hundreds of millions of books. Most community libraries, he noted, aspire to house a well-rounded collection not unlike a well-rounded meal of starch and protein and fruits and vegetables.
In part, customers drive some of what goes into Cedar Rapids’s mix of books, he added.
“If science fiction is in demand, we carry relatively more of it,” Pasicznyuk explained. “Now, teenage books, vampire books are in high demand. We would have more of that.
“It doesn’t contradict the well-rounded piece. I’ve always thought that letting your customers drive you is never a bad thing.”
About 40 percent of the Cedar Rapids book collection is children’s books, he noted. And yes, there will be room for some of the classics. “The Grapes of Wrath” will be on the shelves, he assured.
He said the library also will have a good assortment of old and new books on Cedar Rapids and the city’s history, and ready access from other libraries to books on more obscure topics.
“For us to carry a 1934 book on mosquitoes for the next 20 years, when no one checks it out, is a huge cost maintaining it,” the library director explained. “If you come in, we can get it from Harvard.”
The library employed the equivalent of 48 full-time employees in early 2008 at the time of the flood at its downtown library and small west-side branch library — that’s the same number Pasicznyuk hopes to have working in total at the new downtown library and at what will be a larger west-side branch.
In the last year, the library has circulated 800,000 items, 200,000 of which have been movies, from its temporary home at Westdale Mall. In 2007, the library’s best year, it circulated 1.4 million items, a number Pasicznyuk expects to beat by 100,000 items or more once the new library opens.
The library also anticipates being able to stream movies in the library’s collection to library customers just as it now delivers e-books to them.
At the end of the day, Pasicznyuk said, his central concern is not whether libraries will remain “relevant.” Rather, he worries about the unwillingness of several large publishers to provide their e-books to libraries.
That, he said, means a youngster whose family can afford an e-reader can buy e-books denied to libraries while a low-income youngster without an e-reader will be denied access to the same content.
“What do we do with that?” he asked. “It starts a stratification of society that libraries have worked against for more than a century.”