Sunday, July 5, 2020

Takoma Park is in the process of reconstructing our antiquated city library. A city page on the project describes that in 2014, "When discussions about renovations began, the assumption was that we would work within the existing building and modernize and improve the space." The 2013-5 city council decided on a modest expansion of the footprint, to allow the library to maintain its long-standing services while meeting ADA standards for accessibility for persons with disabilities.  The design was subsequently reworked to meet flood-plain requirements, but a later council also significantly expanded it, delaying construction and adding significantly to the price tag. This last April, the council authorized $499,835 contract for additional design services, and the city put out a survey asking people to vote on three design concepts.

Are there other library approaches that some think would better serve current-day and evolving community needs? Resident Wayne Sherwood put one forward, an alluring alternative vision that would reconstruct the building at a modest scale, as the centerpiece of what he calls a Takoma Park “distributed learning network.”

Here is Wayne's July 2, 2020 letter to the Takoma Park City Council...

Dear friends,

The city recently announced that the Takoma Park City Council is seeking feedback about the library design in its present form.

I think that as currently proposed, this is a seriously misplaced investment of scarce city funds.  

When this project was proposed originally, it was proposed as a modest renovation and upgrade of the existing library, for about $3 to $5 million.   I totally supported that.   I continued to support it when we were told that the total project cost was going to be $7 million.

But the costs have steadily escalated since then, and the last estimate I saw was close to $11 million for a total tear-down of the existing library and complete new construction.

The architect is the same architect who designed the new downtown Silver Spring library, which I consider to be impressive, but that is a full-scale county library.

As the cost of the proposed Takoma Park library has continued to escalate, I think it is time to reconsider the concept of our library.   I don’t think we need to have a full-service library on the present site, particularly not for this cost.

So I propose we scrap the current concept, and instead redesign it as a children’s and young adults library and learning center, emphasizing computer and online learning, and that most of the space be devoted to those purposes, and that the amount of stack space devoted to “ordinary books” be greatly reduced.   Instead, the great majority of books could be sent to storage, either on site or nearby, and people who wanted them could submit a card to the front desk, and they would be retrieved.

Libraries across the country are moving in the direction of scaling down in physical size, and moving to electronic service centers, where people can come in and use computers to get access to the local collection as well as a wide variety of resources on the Internet.  

I have walked through the stacks and seen whole shelves devoted to popular fiction such as romance novels and mysteries – titles that appear briefly in the newspapers’ best seller lists and then fade away and aren’t remembered again.   Keeping such books in open stacks is to me a waste of precious library space.

Many parts of Takoma Park are poorly served by a single centrally-located library.   I am thinking about the greater densities of people living along Flower Avenue and also in the northeastern sections of Takoma Park, such as along New Hampshire Ave. and near Langley Park.  

I think it would make a lot more sense for the city to develop a “distributed learning network” that would include mini-library outposts in those neighborhoods, perhaps attached to or incorporated within the apartment buildings themselves, or within the proposed new Rec Center on New Hampshire Avenue, where adults and youth could access a variety of learning resources closer to home – not all the way across the city.   

Reimagining our library as primarily a children’s and young adults library would seem to me to make a lot more sense, especially since a lot of young people pass the present site on their walks to and from school.   It’s a natural.

I think the present conceptual model for the new library is already obsolete and a poor use of resources – especially if you take into account racial and economic equity, which I think Takoma Park should.  

Slightly less than half the city’s population is now white, but it seems to me that this has not yet been taken very much into account in the city council’s decision-making about how to use scarce resources.  

I anticipate that the city’s property tax revenues are likely to go down over the next couple of years, as the city and county feel the economic impact of the pandemic.

In addition, it looks like the State of Maryland will be cutting back on a variety of forms of financial assistance to local communities.

So it’s not as if the city will be able to go out soon and start creating additional kinds of learning resources in other neighborhoods of the city.    Unfortunately, I think there will be a long ‘pause’ before the city thinks it will have enough money to consider doing that.

In a way, the current pandemic could be giving us an opportunity to reimagine the Takoma Park library/learning center and make it even more valuable to young people (and others) who will be using it over the next 20 years.


Wayne Sherwood