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New library slowed but not stopped

So, what is up with the Kanawha County Public Library's plan to build a new main branch downtown? It seems like it has been taking an awful long time.

It has been six years since the library launched a campaign to raise $37 million for a new main branch, specifically built for all the human and electronic accommodations people expect from libraries these days.

The library has raised about $250,000 this year, bringing the total to $18.4 million, said Library Director Alan Engelbert.

"The private fundraising has slowed," Engelbert acknowledges. The difficult economy is a drag. So is the Kanawha County Board of Education's lawsuit, an effort by the school board to get control of much of the library's day-to-day operating money.

"It is 40 percent of our budget. People are honestly concerned about that," Engelbert said.

Public contributions have also stalled. The Kanawha County Commission pledged $1 million, and U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito secured $237,000 in federal money. But the city of Charleston and the state have not pledged any help.

There is no reason to give up, Engelbert said. It is, however, time to rethink, again.

Plans for the building were first drawn in 2002. That includes projections for how people will use the space and what we will need. The building was scaled down once, both to reduce cost and to make more efficient use of land as it became available on Leon Sullivan Way near the Clay Center.

But the other part of the plan, what's on the inside -- "that's a decade old," Engelbert said. The way people use libraries continues to change. So next month, the library board may ask an architect to re-evaluate.

The 2002 plan already includes a lot of space for people to retrieve and share information electronically. It includes more flexible spaces that could be used for meetings or other gatherings. But since then, mobile technology has changed our habits again. People download and listen to and watch more materials than ever. So maybe there are obvious accommodations that weren't so obvious in 2002, and projections that weren't apparent back then.

"The bigger story here is, 'What should the library of the future look like?'" Engelbert said.

"I think we're going to have book stacks for a long, long time, but it is good to look at how much we'll actually need," he said. The current library, in a rehabbed federal courthouse, was designed for maximum book storage.

Libraries still circulate books, but library users also come in looking for Internet access, programs to attend, electronic books and other materials subject to license agreements, and places to collaborate with others.

Some libraries are looking at more "maker spaces," where people actually come together to work with technology to produce something, even objects, not just media, he said.

"Whatever those spaces are, we need them to be as flexible as they possibly can be, so as the nature of the library changes, the space can be flexed as well without taking out a bunch of load-bearing walls and rerouting electrical service," he said.

He expects most of the current plan is still valid, but after 10 years, it's worth going over again.

Engelbert has no doubt people need the library. The Elk Valley Branch is a perfect example. A year ago it moved from its small building that was not handicap accessible to one at the Crossings Mall in Elkview. The library is very visible, in a high traffic area, close to the Interstate, all on one level and has plenty of free parking.

A year later, circulation is up 39 percent, business in the Reference Department is up 45 percent and computer use is up 88 percent.Miller, the Gazette's editorial page editor, can be reached at dawn@wvgazette.com.


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