Book Marks

first-person-elevator-out-of-orderRepairing the downtown library 

By Tom Gordon

By the time you read this, new Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin will be on the job. He and the City Council, which has three new members, will have a lot on their plate. Among other things, Woodfin has called for stepped-up efforts to address road and sidewalk repair and other needs in the city’s neighborhoods, increased funding for city schools, and for tuition-free opportunity scholarships to enable more Birmingham high school grads to attend local community colleges.

This city resident also is hoping that the new mayor and council will help bring some needed repairs, renovations and innovations to our downtown library. 

A veteran library administrator recently said that in cities with reviving downtowns, the central library is often a showplace, a crown jewel. Birmingham’s downtown is reviving, but one of its crown jewels – the Central Library complex – is overdue for polishing.

Over the years, I have spent many hours doing research and writing in Central, which straddles Richard Arrington Boulevard downtown. The complex consists of the atrium-topped East Building, which opened its doors in 1984, and its elegant companion in Linn Park, the Linn-Henley Research Library, which dates from 1927. In one building or the other, I’ve leafed through things I could not locally find anywhere else: bound volumes of magazines, old city directories, and stacks of census reports. I’ve read 100-year-old newspaper articles on microfilm. In addition, I have attended some of the many programs that Central hosts throughout the year, among them the Bards and Brews poetry competition.

Furthermore, I’ve also gained an appreciation for all the other things that Central does that are a lot less obvious but no less important than rows of books on shelves. Some call Central the beating heart of our city’s library system. That heart also pumps resources throughout Jefferson County. Eighteen branch libraries are part of the city’s system, and Central obtains and catalogues the published material, CDs and DVDs that the branches have to offer. It also has databases, films, ebooks and other downloadable material. Researchers from around the world come to access the voluminous files in the Linn Henley Library’s Archives Department, which has City of Birmingham archives, more than 30 million documents and a map collection that dates to the Middle Ages.

There’s more. Central also houses the offices of the Jefferson County Library Cooperative which serves 40 libraries throughout Jefferson County. When a Cooperative cardholder requests a book at the Vestavia Hills Library to be brought to the one in Avondale, vans based at Central do the pickup and delivery.

Those vital functions and services are ongoing, often done click quietly. But Central’s facilities are not as user-friendly as they once were.

The issues are most obvious in the East Building, where you’ll notice right away that you cannot use the escalators. The moving stairs have been immobile for several years now. Over that time frame, there have been more than a few days when the building’s public elevators, which were never designed to handle the passenger volume that the non-functioning escalators have forced on them, have broken down. There even was a time when the East Building’s operating hours were scaled back because the air-conditioning was not working properly. A while back, things got to the point where East Building staffers were taking library patrons to and from the freight elevator to go to and from the building’s upper floors. Other patrons, some with difficulty, were using the steep-sloped fire-escape stairs. Still others just stopped coming.

The library system board, the administration and the library’s fund-raising foundation have not been indifferent to these issues and others, which also include a need for some fresh paint and new carpeting, and upgrades in technology. And there have been some improvements, the kind that might not be readily noticeable to the public. Through a contract that the city has with Trane Inc., for example, both Central buildings now have new roofs, along with new plumbing, lighting and heating and air fixtures.

A few years back, a New York firm drew up a plan for Central that included a total makeover of the East Building. The price tag, however, was $45 million, and the city would not commit to even a fraction of that amount. Without that commitment, library fundraisers felt they could not seek funding from local businesses and foundations.

Fast forward to now. The library board has sent to the city a blueprint, designed by locally based Hoskins Architecture, to replace the East Building’s escalators with a user friendly series of stairways and landings. The project price would be about $750,000. The board also has asked the city to fund replacements for the building’s worn-down elevators after the new stairways are in place.

“I think that the inner workings of the library are all strong,” said Gwendolyn B. Guster Welch, a 15-year board member. “But you know, like anywhere, if you stay in your house for 30 years, and you don’t make any repairs, pretty soon you’re going to say, ‘My house is old.’ “

In late October, the library board hired Floyd Council as the city library system’s next executive director. The Central Library administrator for the Atlanta Fulton Public Library System, Council started work in mid-November.

Hopefully he was packing a lot of jewel polish when he arrived.

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