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Why a new library?

by in City Finances, Development and Zoning
Posted on January 17, 2013 at 9:56 pm
Last Modified on January 25, 2013 at 8:05 am

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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.

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60 Responses to “Why a new library?”

  1. Thanks for raising these issues. Another model is the McAllen Public Library also in Texas. ( http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/jacketcopy/2012/07/where-walmart-failed-a-library-succeeds.html )

    You can find more images of it (amidst others) at:
    http://www.iida.org/content.cfm/ala-image-gallery#

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  2. Laura says:

    I agree that we should have conversation and debate about the Union Square re-development, including the new library, but we need to be accurate about information and impacts.

    First, the city is not expected to fund the entire cost of a new building. The Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners has already approved an $18M grant that would cover about 40 percent of the costs. In addition, however, in addition to the cost of the construction, we should consider the return on investment that a public library offers its community, which are demonstrated through repeated studies. The author contends that the city would do better to create business incubators. It is important to note that small business owners in particular tend to benefit from the presence of a public library. Not only can small business owners take advantage of the resources of the library, including access to proprietary databases and other information resources as well as research assistance, but they often benefit from the induced spending of library patrons. Libraries attract thousands of visitors (the Somerville Public Library draws 300,000visitors per year), and those visitors often spend money at the local businesses in the vicinity of the library. A study in Philadelphia, for instance, found that about 75% of library patrons spent between $2 and $75 at local businesses when visiting the library. Return on investment studies in Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Philadelphia, Toledo, and New England found between $3 and $6 ROI for every dollar invested in the library. Finally, the Philadelphia study found that home prices for residences located within 1/4 mile of the library averaged almost $10,000 more (and that was after controlling for other variables) which obviously benefits the home owners, but also means increased property taxes for the city. There are also benefits that are more difficult to calculate, but are equally important, such as public library’s contributions to community literacy, support for language learning and access to resources on citizenship for immigrants, support for job-hunters, etc.

    The above post seems to be saying that the library is irrelevant because people can access books and other information on their various mobile devices. We need to remember that, while prices are coming down for tablet computers and smartphones, they are not necessarily “cheap,” and they require monthly access plans in addition to the initial cost of the device. There are still many people who cannot afford these tools. In addition, the books we access with these devices are not available at “no cost.” The vast majority of sources are copyright-protected, meaning that if the library does not cover subscription costs, people have to pay per access. And, despite continued belief to the contrary, not all information is available online. Huge tracts of information, including important government and historical documents, have yet to be digitized, and can only be accessed in print. While digital resources are growing in popularity, a recent Pew study shows that the public still values and wants access to print books. The mission and goal of the library—any library—is to offer the public free access to a depth and breadth of information in a variety of formats. By growing a collection that includes print books, audiobooks, ebooks, CDs, DVDs, online journals, etc. the Somerville Public Library is ensuring the Somerville residents have access to information for education and entertainment in whatever format suits their needs at the time.

    More importantly, however, libraries are about more than just access. Libraries make available information for self-education, and provide community centers where people can meet and socialize. The trend in libraries, as the author rightly notes, is toward more emphasis on services than resources. With dedicated spaces for teens, exhibitions, and meeting rooms the new Somerville Public Library will offer the community free space to gather, work, study, and socialize.

    So, let’s have a conversation- but let’s also look at the whole picture, and begin by understanding that libraries are, and always have been, more than just a warehouse of books.

    Laura Saunders
    Assistant Professor of Library and Information Science

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  3. Kate Van Sleet says:

    I would like to second Laura Saunders comments. I am also a librarian, but since Laura has more than adequately defended the community purpose of a library, I would like to speak as a citizen (and perhaps more importantly, a tax payer) of Somerville. Though I understand the author’s comments regarding Cambridge and their seemingly bottomless pockets of municipal money, when I hear comments that infer that Somerville can’t ever compete with the likes of Cambridge, I go ballistic. I am raising my children in this city. Why shouldn’t my children have the same opportunities as our neighbors? We may not be able to compete with Cambridge dollar for dollar, but we have an incredible community of creative and innovative thinkers in Somerville who tirelessly work to improve this city in every way. Applying (and receiving) the grant from the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners to build a brand new, state of the art library (a community space) is one such example of this creative and collaborative effort. It is highly unlikely that Somerville will be offered this opportunity again. It would be unfortunate (and in my opinion, irresponsible) to not support this initiative to improve our city, the lives of our citizens and the future of our children.

    Kate Van Sleet

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  4. Joeb says:

    1. Where do you think the $18 of matching money comes from if not taxes? (Perhaps state, perhaps federal, but not from philanthropy!)
    2. Somerville Public Library does not draw 300,000 visitors from outside the city, nor do they (noticeably) spend on snacks and transit anything near what they’d spend even at the Boston Public Library, much less Philly’s larger one.
    3. I already borrow books (both physical and digital) from the Minuteman collection, which far exceeds the capacity of even the new library. Why we need more concentration of library storage is a very different question than why we could use more books in more places, closer to users. A distributed network of computer-based research centers would pay much more with much less investment.
    4. We’re already building a $1.3 BILLION subway station, which has ALREADY raised the value of my house (near Union Square) by over $75,000, so a nuance of impact due to a secondary public investment could be easily foregone, particularly since that new subway will nearly double my house’s value.
    5. Over half of my “kindle books” come through the Minuteman connection at no cash cost, and the phone that delivers it is $35/month, and does a lot more than deliver books. Your justification of a $58,000,000 library is almost laughable since I use a phone priced at $600 retail but free with a 2 year contract at half the price of Verizon.
    6. The Timothy Smith model actually demonstrates my case, and, neither coincidentally nor accidentally, is managed THROUGH the Boston Public Library whose e-rate subsidies make those 800 computers in 40 different locations cost much, much less than the building at Union Square.
    This is not a matter of either a library or nothing. It is a promotion of community learning centers using multimedia, books, the networks the Somerville (and other) libraries already use more effectively than a single, large building redundant with the theater where the Post Office now resides, the television station where once there were police, and a more flexible range of responses to the 57 languages (and even more national cultures) represented in this unique city. This is not St. Louis, nor Philly. And we have more diversity, and can use more diverse settings, at lower cost with greater impact than another big building that abandons the traditions of the city.

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  5. Joeb says:

    ps. I also was once a librarian.

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  6. Right now we have a West Somerville Library branch that is badly in need of repairs and we cannot even use the 2nd floor because they haven’t carried out needed repairs to the roof. Even if a new library costs Somerville $32,000,000 (assuming there are not cost overruns, of course), that is almost $2,000,000 a year for 30 years to pay off the debt for just this building. While we can factor in the selling the existing main branch, Somerville has other property on its books that it is not using and has not sold, so I would discount any proposed benefit from its sale. Nevermind a new public safety building or even a new high school as some have proposed.

    In regards to the spill over effects of libraries, if those spill over effects go to businesses and their employees and there is no way for the city to recoup some of those benefits then for the purposes of the cities budget they are moot. More than likely those effects will result in higher property values and thus higher property tax assessments, which will have a negative effect on seniors and others with fixed incomes.

    I like libraries for the purpose and their architectural style (I have fond memories of the old and new Boston Public Library). Nevertheless, the city is not flush with cash and has other commitments, including maintaining the buildings it already has. Those factors have to weigh very highly in such decisions.

    So lets have that discussion (I like libraries as social spaces, myself and would like to see them as hubs of public wifis), but lets not constrain it to just a Union Sq. library, but think of what the library system should do and the people it should help and plan from there.

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  7. So, who wants to start the Somerville Library Re-imaging working group? Or does one exist within the Friends of the Somerville Public Library?

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  8. James Fox says:

    @O’Keefe – James, (and all readers) there is not presently a working group within the Friends of the Library (btw I am the president of the Friends) – I believe the City and the Library Director and library trustees have done much of the heavy lifting so far.

    Any concerned citizen would want to stay informed and lend their voice – and I will work to assist in spreading the word about opportunities to attend any community meeting regarding the new space or improvements to the current branches. I really like your last line about thinking of the whole library system – and I too would love to see the top floor of West Branch back in use one day – great arched space. -JF

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  9. Joeb says:

    As long as the City, the Library Director and the trustees do the heavy lifting, they’re welcome to pay the heavy price – which is both cash, and, in this case, ideas. The point of a community is … community, and it surprises and disappoints me that the Trustees do not have regular, open meetings which invite discussion, and have spin-off discussions with interested parties in how to preserve and extend the library to new patrons, across bounds of class, race, language, and more reflective of the city as a whole.

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  10. James Fox says:

    Apologies Joeb – I was referring to the prework of the grant application with the state. The trustees do infact have public meetings each month (http://www.somervillema.gov/calendar/library-board-trustees-3) and especially acknowledging your background in librarianship would be well served with your presence. “Preserve and extend” – good stuff.

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  11. Mark Howland says:

    This is an ideal time to discuss the choices Somerville faces in guiding the change taking place in Union Square in response to the lively cultural environment created by Union Square Mainstreets & the Somerville Arts Council, the burgeoning investment of small business owners, the changing demographics of Somerville, and, yes, the anticipated Greenline extension.

    A new and expanded public library is an essential component of maintaining and improving quality of life in Somerville. What the writer fails to acknowledge is that a diverse city needs a diversity of resources. A one-dimensional library can only serve a one-dimensional citizenry.

    Somerville has an unmet demand for low cost meeting and performance spaces–places for co-housing groups & political activists, for poetry readings & local musicians, for book clubs & ESL classes, for computer classes and homework tutors. The new library will have a dozen meeting rooms varying in size from two people to two hundred. One large performance space in the post office cannot possibly satisfy this demand.

    The existing central library can not comfortably accommodate the 40 children who arrive for story hours, can not offer these children opportunities to integrate art with literacy, and can not separate toddlers from grade schoolers. The new library will have three times the space for children with separate sections for different age groups and an expanded children’s story area. There will be a flexible meeting room that can be used for art classes, book clubs, and parent support groups.

    The existing central library provides half the recommended number of public access computer terminals for a city of our size. The new library doubles the number of computers with adjacent space for computer classes as well as space for job applicants to work on their resumes and contact potential employers.

    The existing central library provides half the recommended seating for casual reading and research. The new library will have increased study space and comfortable seating. Work and reading areas will be distributed through the library to provide seating inside and outside, in sun and shade, in quiet areas and in meeting zones. There will also be a café and bookstore.

    We need a diverse library to support a diverse population of learners, workers, and readers.

    Mark Howland

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  12. Joeb says:

    Nobody’s arguing against diversity. Rather I’m arguing against a single-building solution. And a solution that is, basically, bound like a book.

    I spent a few hours today having frozen yoghurt and then playing pool in Davis Square. In the course of that play, I discussed – with others who were reading, or sitting in front of a fire, or preparing that yoghurt – the value a few tablets might offer to make reading – of books, magazines, and even the mail – easier, more convenient, and, using the library’s e-rate discount the way they do in Boston, cheaper. Five tablets in each of six or ten places in Davis, five or six in Union, three to six in Ball, Magoon, and Teele Squares would generate a lot more business, while building a lot more community than a single building in Union Square could ever produce.

    The problem is not diversity. That is the resource that a “diverse library” can no longer span. How many of the 57 languages of the high school are represented in the current – or anticipated – catalog? How closely might a library in Union Square work if we could draw in Bunker Hill Community College to develop – with the High School – a community learning and business center in the Homans Building, in the new Gillman Square?

    It is not that a library serves no purpose, but, rather, a single library while we need community-based spaces, ignores the more critical needs while hiding behind a tradition no longer central to readers or the larger community. And renovating the existing building – as well as the branches – would offer far more for far less than another edifice.

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  13. Mark Howland says:

    One of the advantages of a public library is that it’s free. You don’t have to buy frozen yogurt to spend an afternoon reading books or using public access computers.

    One of the advantages of multipurpose libraries is that the same staff can answer reference questions from students, help seniors set up email accounts, and monitor comfortable reading areas.

    Mark Howland

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  14. Joeb says:

    One of the disadvantages of a public library is its perceived isolation and unintended classism, racism, and monolingualism. Were you to visit some of those “hangouts” on those squares, you’d see those who rarely use a public library, and who a library really ought to engage.

    Certainly I don’t mean to invest in tablets ONLY for for-profit partners – churches, community centers, and other sites are even better, and, like the tech center adjacent to the Welcome Project, more appropriate to full computers than tablets anyway. But I bet this library system never thought to offer e-rate subsidies to such partners (as they do in Boston), so they’ve never crossed those boundaries.

    Regarding seniors, as a user of the Council on Aging, I’ve wondered why there are no library computers in their space – now I know. And other assistance might be answered more easily – and accessibly, and in multiple languages – with an online network than waiting for a librarian in a “monitored comfortable reading area.”

    Come on, loosen up. Libraries are no longer so staid, so fixed, and so rigid. And it should not be a new idea that the Highland Cafe could do a spin-off at the Somerville Library!

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  15. Mark Howland says:

    You should visit the East Branch of the Somerville Library or any of the ESL classes at the East Branch, West Branch, and Central Library. I think you would be pleased with the diversity of the patrons we now serve.

    Mark Howland

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  16. Joeb says:

    Excellent news. We just want more. Has anybody asked SCALE and/or SCAT whether they’d be more interested in moving into a new library or have new library (computerized) services available to them? We ought to be thinking about more options and not a single one.

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  17. Mary says:

    As someone who uses the library to save myself money (that I can then spend on local business)–I think a new and improved facility for the new century makes real sense.

    I wonder what the value was of the books I’ve read in the past year at Amazon? I’ll bet it’s easily $300-400, but probably more. That would be an interesting stat for the library to generate city-wide!

    The immigrant kids who live next door to me don’t have internet, and I know they go to the library for access. I wonder what the value of that is too.

    Further as a small business person, I can think of a way the new library could help me. I could use a meeting room that would be available at low cost to rent. I do software training–if it had wifi or some computers to set up it would be dynamite. But even just a place to rent for meetings would help. Since I work out of my home that’s not ideal for customer meetings. And I know a lot more people are setting up small outfits or work from home.

    Maybe we offer some constructive ideas to build the library that would help serve us.

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    • Mark Howland says:

      Last year in Somerville 249,000 books, 45,000 CD’s, 84,000 DVD’s 5,000 E-books, and 2,000 downloadable audio files were checked out.

      Somerville borrowed 73,000 books from other cities for our patrons and loaned 53,000 books to other libraries.

      Total attendance in the library system was 347,000.

      Mark Howland

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      • Mary says:

        That’s awesome data Mark! Convert that to dollars and the value to the city. From my back-of-the-napkin calculation it’s over $5 million dollars in value. So even at “book” value of Joeb’s $50million a new structure pays for itself in just a decade. That’s a better return than a lot of other things the city could invest in.

        And it doesn’t include internet hours and other services like museum passes and such. Or the value of the existing property.

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        • Joeb says:

          Elegant data, Mark. Now, if we could get a breakdown by branch we might be able to target outreach and expansion within the system, to then justify more branches, and more access. Keep in mind the ongoing “Somerville By Design” discussions about Somerville as the ideal “walkable city.” Many neighborhoods are not particularly close to Union Square, and the branches may become even more important if we relocate a central library to the edge of Cambridge.
          And, as I’ve said repeatedly, the utility of computer centers as adjunct and outreach sites is critical to the next century. It would be very useful to see how the numbers of users in Boston – of the Timothy Smith Centers where the library delivers a similar computer-based and federally subsidized outreach – compares to other user databases: do they borrow books, or just access the internet? in what kinds of ratios? languages? and hours?
          Finally, I don’t understand – at all – the case for a single building as a viable alternative to this kind of decentralization. Somerville is only 4.1 square miles, and has the most densely settled population in the Northeast (formerly the nation), and, with current growth rates projected, may regain that national number. A single center, particularly on the spur of a new subway system, will be inaccessible to nearly 80% of the city.

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  18. Joeb says:

    Incidentally, it’s $58,000,000, of which $18,000,000 may survive the Governor’s much contended state tax increase. Compared with about $15,000 for each of the Timothy Smith Centers in Boston, and there are now 40 (and they do not serve all of Boston), such a comparison is breathtakingly overpriced in Somerville.

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  19. Laura says:

    I’m sorry I’m a little late getting back to the discussion, but I think it’s great that this has spurred so much conversation. I just want to make a few brief points:

    1. It is hugely important to note that the branches will not only continue to exist, they will be renovated and improved. Joeb, I completely agree that it would be a mistake to designate a new building in Union Square as the only library- and we’re not intending to do that. To James’ point, the city is already committed to renovations and improvements to both branches, which will include fixing the roof at West branch and making it accessible through ramps, elevators, etc., and making improvements and possible expansions to the East branch. The new building is not meant to replace the branches, only enhance the overall system.

    2. It is also very important to reiterate James Fox’s point that the Trustees do have regular and open meetings, as well as casual meet-and-greets. We also try as much as possible to regularly attend city meetings and events, so we are happy to meet with you and discuss these ideas face to face any time.

    3. While I agree that Timothy Smith centers are a nice service, they serve only one limited purpose- computer access. While this service is very necessary, the library can offer that along with so much more including training and support, access to mobile devices, etc. Computer centers are great, but limited. Libraries are multipurpose, multifunctional and have staff to support the services and resources.

    4. It’s true that Somerville is a very diverse city and no institution or organization will be able to cater equally to all the different languages etc. But I am VERY proud to say that with a MUCH smaller budget and staff, Somerville Public Library actually does a BETTER job of meeting the linguistic diversity of its community than most of the surrounding cities, including Cambridge. One of my grad students recently completed a study looking at a large sample of nearby libraries, including the BPL, Brookline and Cambridge, and found that Somerville has a larger and more diverse foreign language collection, with more emphasis on books originally published in the language (rather than just translations of popular English language novels). So, while it may not be possible to do everything for everyone, I think Somerville Public Library already does a lot… and imagine what more it could do!

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  20. Joeb says:

    To start with #3, the TSN (Timothy Smith Network) does a lot more than offer computer centers, and those it does offer are deeply subsidized by e-rate (very low cost wi-fi subsidized by what you pay at home and the office). It’s disappointing that the former tech center at SCALE and the private tech center at the Welcome Project lack the library’s support, and thereby limit their hours and (in SCALE’s case) closed. And it’s even more disappointing that nobody in the city has picked up the option of very low cost tablets, and that the move to wi-fi many squares got effectively bullied out of business by the cable carriers.

    It is excellent that the library crosses languages and builds linguistic diversity, but technology accelerates (or CAN accelerate) that process dramatically. That is the real import of the TSN and why it’s supported by private charity. Were we to do that, perhaps we might not need a new building with so much happening in so many other places.

    And, finally, how does the Library justify a meeting space for 200 people a block away from a new theater? There seem to be too many loose ends of similar significance (tech, space, meetings, incubators, interface with other nonprofits and service agencies) to leap into an immensely overpriced capital improvement in this era of questionable tax supported expenditures. I won’t go into how the Green Line is budgeted at about twice the price of a much more extended subway system in Portland, Oregon. We do not think through capital costs – particularly if there’s a federal or state co-pay – nearly enough to make them really work for everybody.

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    • Ron Newman says:

      What is this new theatre that you have mentioned several times in this thread? I have heard nothing about it.

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  21. Joeb says:

    Another construction scheme, targeting the soon-to-be vacant Central Post Office as a theater. Read the report http://www.somervilleartscouncil.org/sacfiles/Union%20Sq%20Feasibility%20Study.pdf

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  22. Mark Howland says:

    The new Union Square library is projected to cost 43 million dollars of which the state grant would cover 18 million (approximately 40%).

    On a square foot basis the 200 seat meeting space and prefunction area represents about 2.5 million dollars of that cost.

    The Union Square Feasibility Study prepared by Fort Point Consulting, Inc. in September 2011 projected a cost of 5 million dollars to construct a theater space in the post office.

    I think Somerville would benefit from two large meeting spaces. However the cost of the space in the library will be about half the cost of a performance space in the post office.

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    • Thanks for the data Mark. West Somerville has the Somerville Theater and there is the Arsenal in sort of Central Somerville. When the high school auditorium’s roof is fixed, that will be available in East Central Somerville.

      I know the Arsenal nearly closed down until it got longer hours. Any idea how many such venues Somerville can support?

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  23. Mark Howland says:

    Last year total attendance at the East Branch was 46,000 and total circulation was 26,000.

    Total attendance at the West Branch was 80,000 and total circulation was 74,000.

    I expect these figures to increase significantly with the institution of Saturday hours at the branches.

    You might be interested to know that last year total attendance at young adult & children’s programs was 9,000 and total attendance at adult programs was 4,000.

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  24. Joeb says:

    Not to quibble, but the most recent press notice on the library cost was $45,000,000, and there hasn’t been a construction project in the Commonwealth that has come in anywhere near 75% of its estimated cost.
    Check http://somerville.patch.com/articles/some-more-on-somerville-s-union-square-library-grant

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  25. A while ago I put together a google map of the public (inc. charter) schools in Somerville:

    https://maps.google.com/maps/ms?msid=216607897080986303079.0004b29b30cf1fd281f59&msa=0

    I put this out as an example of what we can do with some of the (free) mapping tech out there to think about these issues.

    Having a main branch in Union Sq. seems out of the way for most of Somerville, especially if the current main branch gets closed down.

    If anyone is interested in thinking about some of these issues, I would be happy to help and can be reached at jokeefe@jamesokeefe.org.

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  26. Laura says:

    Again, very interesting discussion. One point I would make is that theater space, such as is projected for Union Square, and exists in Davis, the high school auditorium, etc. is very inflexible. Usually, seats are bolted down, there are narrow aisles, and no way to rearrange the space. This means that theaters are not very conducive for having meetings or interactive gatherings (I just brought one of my kids to a b-day party at the Davis Square theater and though it was very fun, it was definitely awkward for cake!). I believe the community space projected for the new library would be very different in that regard- the idea would be for it to be flexible space that could be arranged in different configurations, and perhaps even subdivided to accommodate different size groups.

    In a sense, comparing the new library to these theater spaces is like comparing it to computer centers- those spaces are mostly single-service and inflexible. That is not to say they are not important- but they serve a very particular and narrowly focused purpose. The library is multi-purpose and multi-functional: It will offer the access and training of computer centers AND the meeting space of theaters AND many other services and resources.

    As for the location of the library, I think that while Union Square might not be as “central” as the current location, the new transit systems should make it very accessible. Also, while the schools may be concentrated differently, the mayor showed us at the Ward 1 a few weeks ago that East Somerville has the highest concentration of children by far in the city (the slides should be available on the alderman’s web site). The library is for everyone, of course, and has services and resources for everyone, but it might make sense to have the library close to where a majority of the kids live. And again, the branches will continue to serve the city and will be renovated and improved.

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    • Thanks, Laura. I wonder if it would be possible to use some of the rooms in the schools as a community space as well. Obviously not class rooms, but gyms/lunch rooms and even some of the special purpose rooms.

      Having schools be centers of free wifi wouldn’t hurt either.

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  27. Mark Howland says:

    When the library was developing the building program for the new library, Greg Jenkins (Arts Council) told us that there was an unmet need for low cost meeting, exhibition, and performance space in Somerville.

    The library turns down many requests for use of the Central Library auditorium because the space is already booked. Many library programs attract more patrons than can comfortably be accommodated in this space.

    The new library will have a variety of meeting spaces. The 200 seat auditorium will have a separate entrance and restrooms so that it can be used when the library is closed.

    The Somerville Theater and the Armory are both private ventures that charge fees for use of their spaces. The high school auditorium is also expensive to use because the cost of security and custodial services.

    The school gyms do get used for a variety of kids’ sports programs.

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  28. Joeb says:

    Three – quite different – nuances to suggest. First, a large space with a flexible floorplan is surely attractive, and could be adapted from any of several existing gyms and recreation centers already in Union Square. So also, the several incubator spaces managed by Union Square Main Streets and others offer a great deal of flexibility. As do, for that matter, meeting spaces at the Argenziano, the High School, and several other Union Square friendly school and community centers (SCAT, SCALE, etc.)
    Beyond that, viewing a computer center as a fixed site ignores the dramatic change in the media due to tablets. A loan program offering tablets to customers of coffee and other shops, as well as non-profits and service programs, would serve more people and more purposes and cost much, much less than a new facility.
    Finally, it is critical to keep in mind that the “library” is both a place and a resource for deep subsidies for wifi and computer access, which need not be located in a library building. With “computers” that are as simple as a $40 Nook or $60 Kindle, and a wifi connection subsidized by e-Rate, the entire spectrum of “computer center” is really very different. Some may notice that Barnes & Noble announced, today, that they were closing something like 200 book stores – in no small part reflecting this change.

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  29. Laura says:

    I just feel like we are missing some of the unifying vision here.

    The bookstore/library comparison is a dated one. Libraries and bookstores exist for different purposes and operate under different models. Bookstores sell a product and have to turn a profit. Libraries offer services and products for free, and are staffed by professionals with specialized training who can assist patrons in a variety of ways. Access to books is just one of those services.

    And, yes, books can be accessed in many formats and from many devices. So sure, a coffee shop could circulate Nooks and Kindles… which are great for reading books… a little less so for filling out online job applications… even less so for writing resumes or term papers. And will that barrista be able to help you when the device isn’t working right? Can he or she help you find sources to cite in your paper- and tell you how to format those citations? Will the coffee shop have training sessions to help job-hunters search for jobs, or help your mom or your great Aunt Nell learn how to get a gmail account? Will the staff at the computer center read stories and develop activities for your kids? Or suggest books to get your reluctant reader engaged?

    The point I hope to make is that you can have places that circulate tablets, and places that offer access to more traditional computer access, and other places for meetings and activities, etc. etc. but the library brings this altogether and supports it with professional staff.

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  30. Joeb says:

    Certainly good points, but I would never suggest that a coffee shop and library are the same thing: merely that some of the things we now use libraries for might be less expensively available in more accessible formats, leaving the more library-centric activities, the references, the writing and linking, for library sites and for mentoring in other ways. Just as Barnes & Noble is not a library, a library is not just books.

    But the question is to differentiate the needs, to make the professionals MORE rather than less professional, and to make the many resources of a library as accessible to as many people as conceivable, in as many ways as they may find them useful.

    To restrict those resources to a single building, even with some satellites in two existing sites, is both unfair and unreasonable, and immensely over priced. It concentrates resources precisely where they should be being distributed, and it makes them less accessible than they now are in the name of a new building.

    I would also argue, incidentally, that librarians should be available online – whether through Twitter or other social networks – to make some of that advice available to those who stay home or drop into locations other than the central HQ. It’s not just the space that gets isolated, and the professional staff – just as they have already been in this already extended dialog – can be available in forms other than from behind a desk.

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  31. Mark Howland says:

    I understand how tablets in cafés could be cheaper than public access computers in the library. How do you suggest providing children’s programming more economically? Or reference services? Or the local history archive?

    Meeting spaces in schools aren’t a great solution. They can’t be used during school hours and they’re expensive to keep open in the evening.

    There’s efficiency and serendipity in the library. People of all ages and conditions rub shoulders. Children can attend a story hour while their parents pick up a book. Young adults can gather with peers and get help from a reference librarian. With the Central, East & West everyone in Somerville is within a mile of a library.

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  32. Joeb says:

    Nor would I suggest that everything take place everywhere. Get serious! Children’s programming should be joint with many other caregivers, and may be at one, two or three libraries, as well as books and other materials on loan to everything from Early Head Start to computer centers linked to teen centers across the city.

    By the way, we’re not the backwater this story seems to imply. Today’s Globe has a treatment of Menino’s announcement of a joint program with EDx (Harvard and MIT) through that same network of tech centers I cited above (http://www.boston.com/news/local/massachusetts/2013/01/29/speech-menino-announce-initiative-with-harvard-mit/UdpjsrBDPnISwMpvFjO4RJ/story.html). Is it accidental or a policy of our Somerville libraries, serving hundreds of MIT and Harvard families, are NOT partners with EDx, while Boston – and the Boston Public Library – delivers courses and support just across the river?
    And, for that matter, who has done a financial analysis that proved the Edgerly, Cummings, and Powder House schools could NOT be converted to library use at a much, much lower cost than a new building at Union Square?

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  33. Laura says:

    Well this is something we definitely agree on: Somerville is not a backwater- far from it! As a lifelong resident, I can attest to the fact that Somerville, under Mayor Curtatone in particular, has made great strides in becoming an innovative, interesting, world-class city.

    In order to keep it that way, we need to be willing to invest in the institutions that make this city- any city- great.

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  34. Joeb says:

    Since we’re not a backwater, when can we expect MOOC courses in the library, branches, or … anywhere? Given that the courses are themselves free, and that MIT and Harvard are offering Boston mentors/tutors and individual support staff, our multiculturalism and size makes Somerville a perfect pilot site. The Mayor’s contacts at Harvard are as good as Menino’s, so, when do we get the deal made? And why will courses by Kindle (the price has dropped to $83) require a new building on Union Square?

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  35. Mark Howland says:

    The 2006 Facility Planning Study for the Somerville Public Library prepared by Providence Associates Inc. estimated the cost of a new library would be about 87% of the cost of a renovated facility.

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  36. Joeb says:

    The initial estimates – before Romney’s contractors from the Big Dig and Afghanistan – for the Green Line were $17,000,000, about 1% of today’s.

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  37. Mark Howland says:

    Richard Waters, the Principal Consultant for the study, has nationwide experience. His general overview should be quite reliable.

    One of the difficulties in renovating existing space is providing supervision without increasing the number of staffing service points. The new library with nearly twice the area will have the same service points–circulation, reference, and children’s–as the current central library.

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  38. Joeb says:

    People might want to see how Dr. Saunders spread the argument to Somerville Patch (http://somerville.patch.com/blog_posts/love-the-library-giving-back-to-the-community).

    And my summary there was this:
    Finally, Boston has already established 40 Timothy Smith Centers that deliver education, meeting spaces, and library support, and, yesterday, Mayor Menino announced an agreement to offer Harvard and MIT courses in all those sites. Where’s Somerville? Why don’t we care about the 57 different languages already in the schools, and online resources to support that kind of diversity? Boston uses the e-Rate subsidy to connect all these diverse resources. Why not Somerville? Or is the building more important than its purpose?

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  39. Joeb says:

    And, Mr. Holland, do you really think that supervising librarians on site is worth a $50,000,000 investment? Why not get more for our money than another monument? See you at the Library Board next Wednesday night, along with anybody else who wants more for our money.

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    • Alain Jehlen says:

      I sent this fascinating discussion to a good friend, Dennis Gaffney, who used to be chair of the board of library trustees in Albany, where they went through a major and controversial expansion.

      Here’s what Dennis had to say:

      I’m going to link you to this article from Forbes, of all places, called “Why Public Libraries Matter: And How They Can Do More.” The author writes that NY’s public libraries have reached an agreement with the public schools to lend their books through school libraries, and the goal is to get every child in the city a library card (1.2 million), which would be a big boon to literacy and learning. Here’s the link to the entire article, which is a bit technical, but full of ideas.
      >
      http://www.forbes.com/sites/davidvinjamuri/2013/01/16/why-public-libraries-matter-and-how-they-can-do-more/

      This gentleman [Here Dennis means JoeB, not the Forbes author-aj] has a point, and the point he’s making is that public libraries are now going through a revolution. I think he’s right when he says that if you build a repository of books, you’re building a mausoleum. I’m writing from Albany, NY, where we (I was on the board at the time) built five new libraries over the last three years and how they operate is going through a metamo More than half of young adults and seniors living in poverty in the United States used public libraries to access the Internet last year.) Literacy is still essential to be a productive person and citizen; lifelong learning is still one of the joys of life, and libraries help with both. Libraries are also becoming community centers, where you can have lectures, public meetings, candidate debates, movies, and concerts (we have so many more programs in our new libraries than in the old because we have space for them). In a time when public spaces are being closed, a library is one of the last vestiges of the public square. But better, because it’s open all year round.

      Now deciding how big to build, how much to spend, to build one bigger library or smaller branches, and where to build them are political and economic decisions (we started with an idea that we’d build one big main library and then moved to a branch model, which people wanted). But I think it’s also worth noting that libraries don’t just cost money; they’re an investment in a community that pays real financial dividends. Attractive libraries protect property values (like good schools) by making cities like Somerville more attractive to live in. They create walkable communities, good for the health of those who live in your city (I read recently that Somerville has started some programs to deal with childhood obesity) by providing free destinations for everyone from families to seniors. By giving people a free and attractive destination, public libraries bring traffic to businesses (we have well over a million visits to Albany libraries each year, in a city of 95,000 people), and are good for business the way a college is good for the economic health of a town. Studies have said that for every dollar invested in a community, six dollars is returned in other goods and services: in materials such as ebooks, music, more healthy businesses, a more prepared workforce, safe after-school places for children, etc. For all this, U.S. citizens pay about $42 p each year to maintain public libraries.

      They also provide a benefit that is hard to put a price tag on: community. Libraries help immigrants integrate into the community (I remember Somerville as a place with many immigrants) and provide materials that the poor wouldn’t normally have access to: entertainment, reading materials, and computers. It’s also an amenity that attracts a creative class—another boon to any city. They educate people, entertain people, empower people, and bring us—rich, poor, young, old, and everyone else in a community—together. Make it happen on your terms, and with an eye to not just what libraries were, but what they can be, and I can’t help but think that Somerville will be better for it.

      Dennis Gaffney
      former library trustee, Albany, NY

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  40. Mark Howland says:

    David Vinjamuri’s first article on eBooks discusses the limitations and cost of eBooks to libraries:

    http://www.forbes.com/sites/davidvinjamuri/2012/12/11/the-wrong-war-over-ebooks-publishers-vs-libraries/

    “Between the cost of eBooks and a technology component, providing access to eBooks is three times as expensive for her [Robin Nesbit of the Columbus Ohio Metropolitan Library System] as physical books.”

    “The challenge to libraries is not insignificant. Four of the six publishers are not providing eBooks to libraries at any price.”

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  41. Joe Beckmann says:

    It’s not just ebooks. That dreadful suicide over breaking into journals at MIT underscores how the richest of research has come to benefit a few corporate publishers, and how libraries are caught in a very ugly vice, between proprietary investors and a public who needs what information they may provide. The value of a library – in both paper and non-paper forms (since many of those journals are only electronic) – continues to grow.
    But that value also grows faster if it is less centralized. There was a time, early in the Comcast-RCN contest, when we actively anticipated a wifi city, or at least wifi districts around Davis, Ball, and Union Squares. The library could still offer that, at much, much lower cost than other means. And the bigger its building the fewer its sites.

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  42. Joe Beckmann says:

    And, should anyone doubt the relevance of integrating technology with construction and outreach, they might look for a job through the Berkman Center, where they’re planning the national hub, here: http://www.idealist.org/view/job/H2s36P735Dw4/

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  43. Joe Beckmann says:

    I love it when I actually anticipate journal articles – and the Infographic associated with this one makes all the points made in this discussion so far:
    http://edudemic.com/2013/02/how-technology-is-shaping-the-future-of-libraries/

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  44. Joe Beckmann says:

    And even more with the FCC’s re-discovery of free WiFi as a national priority, as noted in today’s Washington Post (http://www.washingtonpost.com/business/technology/tech-telecom-giants-take-sides-as-fcc-proposes-large-public-wifi-networks/2013/02/03/eb27d3e0-698b-11e2-ada3-d86a4806d5ee_story.html)

    People tend to forget that we actually funded free wifi in the mid 1990′s, only to have Verizon and others decide that DSS was “good enough,” and, later, with the funded money in their pocket, “invent” FIOS and continue to “red line” the city (and Boston). In truth, Congress should levy a penalty tax on those who advertise services they then do not provide. But that’s another battle….

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  45. RichShortt says:

    I think people forget that the Cambridge Library is not on a new site, but adjacent and attached to the old library which has been renovated and has amazing character.

    Somerville’s main library is a classic building too, maybe not as spectacular, but it was ruined by an attempted modernization that made a disaster of the space. There is land around the library, so why don’t we have an addition and modernization of the current library uses existing adjacent city owned land where there will be ample parking if well designed.

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  46. Mark Howland says:

    About 15 years ago the library proposed making an addition to north face of the building. The design by Shepley Bulfinch left the existing structure intact. The result was an inefficient use of space that would have been difficult for library staff to supervise effectively.

    The 2006 Facility Planning Study for the Somerville Public Library prepared by Providence Associates Inc. estimated the cost of a new, modern library would be about 87% of the cost of renovating and expanding the existing library.

    Certainly the existing historic building will be repurposed. It could become part of the high school or transformed into a branch library/makerspace or renovated for another civic purpose.

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  47. Richard Shortt says:

    This thread of discussion makes me wonder whether changes in technology and the publishing industry warrants a little moderation in the push for a new library building in Union Square. It is clear we need ways for all citizens to access information and I’m not sure if the centralized or decentralized approach is best. Maybe its a combination with more and smaller facilities. What if we build a large library to hold millions of books and publishing moves toward technology v. paper? What are we going to do with the building and why are we spending so much on it? I would think that a modest expenditure to upgrade existing facilities for now would make a lot of sense as we wait for the fallout of the battle between paper and electronics.

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  48. Mark Howland says:

    The library is more than book storage facility. It is a place for ESL classes, community meetings, and children’s story hours. It is a community commons that welcomes children discovering the world of reading, teens completing their homework, the unemployed seeking jobs, and retired adults relaxing with the paper. The new library will expand our ability to serve the residents of Somerville with more seating for patrons, more meeting rooms for programs, and more workstations for Internet access.

    The Central Library holds approximately 160,000 books, 10,000 audio CD’s, 10,000 DVD’s, and 8,000 E-books. A modest expansion of stack space would allow for improved access for people with limited mobility, better display of new materials, and inclusion of books in other languages and formats.

    Ongoing improvements to the East Branch and West Branch libraries will enhance library services throughout the city.

    In the future we may replace books with makerspaces or public access computers with classrooms. Right now our meeting spaces are overbooked, our story hours are overcrowded, and our computers rarely idle.

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  49. Joe Beckmann says:

    Two parallel discussions should be linked to this planning. First, the condition of city buildings – from the high school auditorium to the two – soon to be three – empty former schools, suggest a pattern of malfeasance unmatched by most other cities. If it costs so much to repair the current building, how did it ever get into such dis-repair, and how can we expect a new library to survive such treatment in the future?

    Second, there is a remarkable degree of isolation that this plan seems both to reflect and to reinforce. Concurrent with the library is a new theater, a walkable city, a $1.3 billion transit expansion that includes 11 new subway stations (including Assembly Square), and a serious reconsideration of streets, retail, and other plans for both Union, Gillman, Magoon, Ball, and Assembly Squares, ANY or many of whom could or should or might support a library branch. That inclusion could come through a zoning variance, a capital plan shared with a transit, private, or housing partner, and/or leased expansion at low initial cost with higher payoff over time and direct economic impact on adjacent retail and housing.

    The fact that I have yet to see a Library rep at any of the housing, transit, environmental, economic, walkability, health, or other meetings that are discussing these options underscores both how busy I am now that I’m retired, and how isolated the library planning has got to be to miss so many other events for so long.

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  50. Richard Shortt says:

    Thanks Joe. You have raised a serious concern relating to the siting of a central library. Most residents will not use the Green Line to get to the library. It will mostly bring people to and from Boston and beyond to/from work with some reverse flow to Somerville “hot spots.”

    As has been mentioned the Somerville Library’s central purpose will and should be to serve residents. I would not expect many non residents to be drawn to a library. Theatrical use of auditorium(s),etc. should draw residents as its primary public purpose supported by public construction & operating funding.

    Privately funded venues should serve to draw non residents to Somerville. Yes, residents using the library will help local nearby businesses, but is this the best location to serve all of Somerville?

    If the bus routes are reconfigured to use Green Line stations as terminals, how do we know how many buses will bring (especially limited income) residents to Union or will they drop off at Ball, Lowell,etc.? How do folks living in Winter Hill, at the Mystic Housing or St. Polycarp Village get to Union Square by public transit? No bus now goes there directly and will such bus/subway access be developed when Sullivan is more accessible? Same for many other areas of our city.

    Even if residents were to use the Green Line they would have to change somewhere to get the dedicated train to Union.

    Lots of food here for thought and a planning puzzle of many dimensions.

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