With federal, state and city budgets tight, why must we spend more than $50,000,000 for a new Somerville Library? This is a new era, when bookstores are closing all over and when I have a dozen books on my cell phone (and kids I know have whole kindle libraries). This kind of “edifice complex” seems both ill-conceived and inappropriate.
Not that we don’t need more reading spaces, nor more ways to get to library materials, but the city’s ignorance of it’s own transformation – through the library’s own affiliation with the Minuteman Library network – makes a building for books feel like a mausoleum of old knowledge. Ironically, we can now access more books than we could house, much, much faster, and for no cost.
The fact that there’s been no serious dialog about the subject in political, cultural, or educational groups underscores that very irrelevance. Such a dialog ought to embrace things like Boston’s Timothy Smith Centers, where 20 computers in 40 community rooms compensate for tech access; inexpensive loan programs and cheap tablets make the Minuteman library of over 100,000 books a tap away; and the fact that there are 47 languages in the high school already, indicates that no single library will respond to the needs already evident to any careful analysis.
This does not mean that we should ignore the need for public uses of spaces like that proposed for the Union Square library, but, rather, we should make those uses more … useful. The fact that a theater is being proposed for the current post-office, which will be closed soon, suggests there’s no need for an additional auditorium. And a $50, 000,000 subway station, built on an $8,000,000 lot soon to become vacant (and replacing an $800,000 junk pile, to somebody’s quite remarkable profit), all suggest the need for some serious “walkable city” planning meetings for Union Square. As soon as possible. But a library? Why not several small computer centers? Why not some more business incubators? Why not a partnership with Bunker Hill Community College, whose building was constructed for 5500 students and who now serves 17,000?
When I hear from advocates, “Cambridge has a new library,” I go ballistic. In the first place, Cambridge could write a check for it – they’ve made lots of money from Kendall Square and Alewife developments. But, more important, their library is less book-oriented than service oriented, and we could do much, much more with much, much less construction.
By the way, a model of an alternative library, in Texas of all places, suggests how much more library we could have for how much less money.