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Buffalo News, The (NY)

August 5, 2002


Author: CHARITY VOGEL - News Staff Reporter

Edition: FINAL
Section: NEWS
Page: A1

Estimated printed pages: 6

Article Text:

Remember that dim, dusty library of your childhood -- the place where you lived in fear of getting shushed by a tight-lipped librarian?

And perish the thought of sneaking a snack in the stacks.

Say goodbye to all that, book lovers. A whole new world awaits, now that the 21st century approach to public libraries is coming to Buffalo and Erie County.

The Central Library on Lafayette Square is about to get a $5.1 million overhaul that will:

Put a cafe offering coffee and light meals in among the popular new books and magazines.

Make browsing the shelves feel like a mega-bookstore experience, with hardcovers attractively arranged, DVDs and CDs within easy reach and comfortable couches just steps away.

Turn the children's department into an attraction with an "urban park" theme -- including a blue sky, green carpet, park benches and a huge spreading tree for kids to sit under.

Open up the Rare Books Room to visitors, by expanding it and making the materials more accessible, unlike the current setup where the rare materials are mostly off-limits. Patrons will be able to walk in and examine the rare books and manuscripts -- under glass -- in a roomy new area, without getting permission first.

The goal, library officials said, is to make the Central Library a destination spot people will want to visit often -- for entertainment as well as scholarly research.

It's a trend that's happening across the United States and throughout North America, national experts said.

"The big bookstores have taken a great deal (of their atmosphere) from libraries. There's no reason that libraries can't take a little bit away from bookstores," said Maurice J. Freedman, president of the American Library Association. "Libraries have always wanted to be comfortable places. It's nice to know you can go, sit and be comfortable, have coffee and read a book."

That kind of thinking is what library officials here are banking on.

"Things like this would not even have been considered a little while ago," said Ruth Collins, the library official overseeing the plans. "The (Central) Library is a great building, but it's kind of outdated. The challenge now is to appeal to people of all generations."

Major new trend

Around the United States and North America, public libraries are being built, expanded and reconstructed to look and feel a lot different than they used to.

Most of the changes include cafes, coffee bars and restaurants; comfortable "living room"-style seating areas; and improved children's departments, often with ambitious themes.

"This is a trend," said Freedman, who is also director of the Westchester County Public Library. "What it says is, the library wants to be a contemporary, welcoming and enjoyable space for people. It wants to be a place where people can have their needs met."

Some of the amenities are unique. An overview of some cities where public libraries have become feature attractions includes:

Portland, Ore., where the Central Library in the Multnomah County Library System was one of the first libraries in the country to install an espresso bar, which is run by Starbucks. The library, a classical 1913 building, underwent a $24.6 million renovation in the mid-1990s designed to preserve its period look while adding amenities including an art gallery with domed skylights and a large gift store.

Nashville, Tenn., where a $54 million new central library opened last summer. The building -- which takes up an entire city block -- features Provence, a French-style patisserie; a marionette theater for children; a high-tech conference center; and an outdoor courtyard, complete with a fountain and trees.

"It's really popular," said Pamela Reese, a library spokeswoman in Nashville. "We've more than doubled our business since we opened. Our population in Nashville is very diverse, and the downtown library is a perfect mirror of the city -- everybody is in here."

Seattle, where an ambitious state-of-the-art library is currently being built at a cost of $159 million. The modern building -- which has been dubbed "the cheese grater" by some critics -- is the design of renowned Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. Inside, the library will feature a "book spiral": four floors of spiraled space for the library's book collection. At the top of the spiral will be a glassed-in reading gallery that looks out over Puget Sound.

Richmond, British Columbia, where library officials touted the Ironwood branch as the "library of the future" when it opened in 1998. Mimicking the hip look of a high-end bookstore, the library displays its books and CDs face-out on stylish wooden racks. In a "living room" at the library, patrons can eat snacks and drink coffee while sitting in comfortable plush chairs near a river-rock fireplace.

Collins, the Erie County library official, said Richmond's Ironwood branch has become something of a model for the construction and renovation of public libraries across the United States.

"They were one of the first to call themselves the library of the future," she said. "That was kind of a model for a number of the other libraries."

Back in Buffalo

But will the new model work in Buffalo? After all, the library system in Erie County has an unusually high number of smaller branches -- 51 -- that keep people from driving downtown to the flagship Central Library.

And once they get downtown, some people object to what they see as more basic issues -- such as a lack of free parking, which is readily available at suburban branches.

"I actually prefer going downtown, because they have more to offer," said Ronald Hyla, a Williamsville resident who visited the Amherst Main Library at Audubon this week. "But it's sort of inconvenient. You have to go into a ramp or get parking on the street."

In general, however, people said the changes proposed for the Central Library seem like good ones.

Some really liked the idea of a cafe in the library. Many approved of the bookstore atmosphere that the library seeks. Others liked the plans for the new children's area, which will feature bright colors and a large artificial tree under which children can sit and read.

"You can see that they're trying to make it into something children will like," said Jan Potter, an Amherst resident who is a prekindergarten teacher in the Buffalo Public Schools.

But suburban residents also said they are more likely to use their local branch libraries rather than the downtown facility -- no matter what the amenities inside -- simply for convenience's sake.

"This is between the university and home. We don't have a lot of time," said Bill Sack, a Ph.D. student in musical composition at the University at Buffalo who was checking out videos at the Audubon Library for his son.

Still, Sack said that he thinks the changes at the Central Library are a good idea.

"I think it's a good thing that they're actually trying to involve people in the library, even if it is by making it more commercialized," he said. "That's kind of ironic, really."

The library view

The renovations at the Central Library are expected to start next spring and to take about two years to complete. The library will remain open and fully functional during the project.

Library officials estimate the cost of the project at $5.1 million, part of which they expect to receive from Erie County. The Library Foundation, a fund-raising group that supports the library system, is also planning to aggressively raise private funds to help pay for some of the renovation costs.

David A. Walter, a principal at Habiterra, the Jamestown architectural group that is designing the local renovation, said that the project will improve the Central Library in less-visible ways as well.

For example, Walter said, the first floor will be more efficient for staff members. There will be better lighting and better graphics to help patrons find their way around the building, he said. Asbestos abatement in the building -- representing about $1 million of the overall cost -- is also a big part of the project.

Walter said that security concerns about library materials -- especially the DVDs and CDs, which will be much more accessible after the renovation -- are also being addressed.

"We spent a lot of time with the staff, dealing with things like security. Theft is a concern in libraries," he said.

But what about another potential problem: all those lattes and biscotti and cookies from the new cafe getting spilled and crumbled into the pages of books?

Surely, Erie County's librarians aren't advocating eating over a library book.

"We realize that when people take these books out and take them home, they're certainly sitting at their kitchen table, reading," said Collins, the library official. "So that was a kind of artificial rule.

"All this," she said, "will just be common sense."

e-mail: cvogel@buffnews.com

DEREK GEE/Buffalo News Renovation will make the
reading areas at the Central Library of the Buffalo & Erie County
Public Library much brighter and more comfortable.
Upholstered chairs and couches provide a living-room atomosphere in
the "library of the future," in richmond, British Columbia.

Copyright (c) 2002 The Buffalo News
Record Number: 0208050146