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Library planning versus needs

By On

Tomorrow the Bellingham Library Board of Trustees meets and will probably produce a plan for a new grand downtown library building and a bond issue of between 20 to 60 million dollars to pay for it. It will be sent to the city council and mayor for placement on the May ballot - and they will start a “grassroots” campaign to pass the issue with former mayor Tim Douglas leading the “grassroots” effort. The project will contain teaser branch library tidbits as a hook to get voters to approve it. It is all pretty bogus.

Briefly, here is an analysis and alternative direction for our city.

The Library has not seriously considered any options to the one big building. As such, their statements that branch libraries are more expensive and that our city is not big enough are merely that - statements of opinion without any study behind them. They cite some facts of other cities but have not actually researched our Bellingham situation. They have reacted to neighborhood requests for branches by tossing crumbs in the form of pickup points.

An underground parking garage for city and county employees is the real reason behind a new big library downtown. There are laws that prevent the city from just building this - and they know the voters would never approve a 30 million dollar bond issue for a parking garage. So they have wrapped it in a library.

Traffic and parking will be worsened with a big central library. With branches, people can get full services and school kids can safely go to their branch libraries. In 1992, several of us in the Fairhaven area formed the Friends of the Fairhaven Library when then mayor Tim Douglas and the Library Trustees were preparing to close our Fairhaven Library. We organized south side residents and we stopped city hall. We wish other neighborhoods could have such a fine facility. Its use has continued to grow each month and year. It serves all five south side neighborhoods and is very efficient on a any number of library measurement criteria.

Enough analysis for this post. There is more analysis that is damming to the city plans. But here is an alternative plan which I think will provide a much higher level of service to all residents for the same or fewer dollars.

1. Build a book storage facility in a low cost manner on the north side of town - Bakerview area, for instance. Put the 80% of the books that only get checked out 20% of the time there. Keep the 20% that get checked out 80% of the time at the central and branch libraries. The building needs humidity control but can be inexpensive and efficient for storing and retrieving desired books.

2. Start building full service branch libraries. No bond issue this May. Instead meet with residents in the neighborhoods and plan branch locations and build them one at a time over the years as we continue to grow as a community. The first branches are needed in the Alderwood or Cordata neighborhoods. For years Talbot Company has been offering the city free space at Barkley Village but the library has ignored them till now - when some interest will help pass the bond issue.

3. Combine the Bellingham and Whatcom County library systems. Talk about cutting costs and saving tax dollars. Whew. That book storage system with daily van deliveries of books is exactly how the County system works and efficiently runs 9 branches. Combine the two and efficiently run all our libraries. While the two systems cooperate now, we taxpayers are paying double for the administrative services.

4. Lets examine just what services and value we want from our library system. The Internet is steadily wiping out reference services. Do you know free libraries were started in the 1800s for - not school kids and not the general public - but to get the blue collar working men out of the bars in the evenings? True. Over the century they have evolved to serve the community. One new service they could efficiently perform is to provide as our public records source for government documents from the city, county, port and other government agencies. This is only one idea of how their services could be expanded to give us more bang for our dollar.

5. A final point. Browsing library shelves. Well, when you do, you do not see the most popular books as they are checked out. But new Internet catalog services now allow us to browse a shelf of books at our local library and see all the books. The screen shows the book spines with titles and you can view the title page, forward and even the table of contents. Then you can put a reserve on the book you want and it can be delivered to your branch library for convenient - and environmentally friendly - pickup by you. With today’s and tomorrow’s Internet, we can browse the actual shelf visually online and see all the books. And that is the service we want and need.

We citizens need to insist that our city government and library board make a serious effort to compare their big parking garage/library plan with the options of branches, big warehouse storage of materials and combining the city and county systems. That has not been done - but the hype from city hall implies that has been done. We need to insist on real studies. It is worth spending good money on a cost benefit analysis and waiting a year instead of spending tens of millions of dollars on a big library that may be of low value in the future. The parking garage for city and county staff perks is the only high value thing hat we are being asked to fund with the May bond issue. The library is just wrapping for the parking garage.

About John Servais

Writer • Fairhaven, Washington USA • Member since Feb 26, 2008

John started Northwest Citizen in 1995 to inform fellow citizens of serious local political issues that the Bellingham Herald was ignoring. With the help of donors from the beginning, he has [...]

Comments by Readers

Ham Hayes

Jan 29, 2008

You bring up some good points. This community has certainly strongly supported evaluating major projects from multiple dimensions. For example..the waterfront redevelopment being evaluated from the perspective of environmental and sociological as well as economic considerations.  The logic of continuing that practice on other large private and public projects such as the library seems pretty clear. 

The quantum jump in access to information provided by the internet requires us to seriously reexamine our previous assumptions and beliefs about brick and mortar repositories.  The rising cost of energy and increased concerns about our impact on the environment support modification of traditional transportation habits and also need to be taken into account. 

A new library infrastructure needs to be conceived for the future accounting as best possible for these mega-factors.

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