High hopes for new Cedar Rapids library

New downtown site will ‘elevate' community, not warehouse books

The ceiling of the adult fiction section at the new downtown Cedar Rapids library slopes to accommodate a 200-seat audit
The ceiling of the adult fiction section at the new downtown Cedar Rapids library slopes to accommodate a 200-seat auditorium on the floor above. Photographed on Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2013, in southeast Cedar Rapids. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Stand on the first floor where the city’s new $49 million library’s adult fiction collection will go and it hits home: This isn’t going to be anything like the place ruined by the 2008 flood.

Above the spot where the stacks of novels will stand, the ceiling pitches up to three stories in height — this is the underside of the 200-seat, second-floor auditorium where the rows of theater seats climb up to a third floor.

“Wow,” promises Joe Lock, vice president of the library’s Board of Trustees.

Yes, the new library — 11 percent larger than its flooded predecessor but seemingly much bigger, with a roof garden plaza, three walk-and-read treadmills, three fireplaces and a cafe with drive-up window — still will have plenty of printed books even as the rush from print books to electronic books is moving nearly as fast as workers can put on the finishing touches so the new library can open in August.

And no, the e-book revolution doesn’t mean that the city’s new library will be a modern-day dinosaur, an anachronistic testament to tunnel vision in a relentless world of change, assures Bob Pasicznyuk, the Cedar Rapids library’s director.

Core mission

Pasicznyuk says the library’s core mission remains as it was a century ago when industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie directed much of his fortune to library building. Carnegie viewed the library as a great equalizer, “the people’s university,” or as Pasicznyuk puts it: “The library is the place where people can go and become something they are not.”

In answer to Carnegie’s call, Pasicznyuk says librarians got busy buying books and building book collections, “and people started saying, ‘Well, that’s what a library is — how many books you can get on a shelf.’?”

Along the way, he says, the library’s primary “strategy” — “We’re here to elevate the community” — got lost amid in the stacks. He says clearer heads now see that the printed book is just one “tactic” in pursuit of the strategy.

“To the extent we do that with books, I applaud that,” Pasicznyuk says. “I like books myself. I’m a reader. And my guess is that will remain part of our tactic structure for some time to come. But if that changes, and it becomes a computer, if it becomes a person sitting with a child who is learning to read, it’s very much in line with the original mission of the public library.”

Pasicznyuk is quick to show two photographs from the same room in the Free Library of Philadelphia, one from the late 19th century and another from 40 or so years later. In the first, the room is packed with seated patrons, many quietly conversing, with the books in stacks along the wall. In the later photo, it’s hard to find the people for the stacks of books.

“I think they are learning,” Pasicznyuk says of the earlier photo. “I think they are enjoying their ability to rub elbows and be in civic discourse with one another. It was a gathering place. Libraries originally were very much civic centers, centers of learning and to a certain extent centers of enjoyment and entertainment.”

The new Cedar Rapids Public Library, like the best libraries in the nation, will be more like the late 19th century, less like “a warehouse for books,” he promises.

Take the tour

On a tour of the library construction site in recent days, Pasicznyuk pointed out that the library is designed with wide-open spaces and big windows so that fewer staff members are needed to supervise patrons and plenty of natural light gets into the building.

Much of the library’s first floor is devoted to children and youth, but also includes the library’s cafe with a drive-up window and the adult fiction collection. The second floor will include stacks of non-fiction books and a large computer area with 60 or so computers for the public’s use.

But the second floor, too, is what Pasicznyuk calls the library’s “civic and creative” area, which features an assortment of study rooms, meeting rooms, a family computer room and a glass-enclosed “un-conference room,” which looks down on the library’s first floor and will be perfect for local book clubs. The second floor also features a 150-person conference room and the 200-seat auditorium that climbs from the buildings’ second floor to its third floor and looks out on Greene Square Park across the street.

“I think it will be the most coveted space in Cedar Rapids,” Pasicznyuk says.

The library director rattles off other of the library’s features — the green roof, a geothermal heating and cooling system, a system that keeps most rainwater on site and out of the river and even a shower for employees who bike to work, all of which are helping the new building earn the top Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification level of platinum.

The new library will have a better e-book system, will loan out e-readers and will have iPad computer tablets affixed to the ends of some of the stacks to help patrons with questions.

Other libraries

Even with all that, though, the library as a concrete place to visit and use remains as relevant as ever, say Pasicznyuk’s colleagues elsewhere in Iowa.

For starters, Susan Craig, the director at the Iowa City Public Library, says the oft-talked-about demise of the printed book is not about to happen any time soon.

In the first six months of the current library budget year, residents in Iowa City checked out 422,911 print books, compared to 30,163 downloads of e-material, including books, magazines, videos and music, Craig said.

“The printed book will be here for many decades to come,” she declares.

Craig also points to a recent Pew Research study that found that people use the physical library for checking out books and much more — the Internet, meeting rooms, help with technology and children’s programming to name a few.

Greg Heid, director of the Des Moines Public Library, says he is moving furniture around and making changes in Des Moines’ just-seven-year-old downtown library right now as the needs of library patrons continue to change.

For some, Heid says the downtown library has become something of a “second living room,” where people take refuge with their own smartphones, computer tablets and newspapers. In fact, he says he’s moved some computers to another area to make room for people with their own devices. The demand for study rooms at the library is increasing, too, as people choose to get away from the office or home office to find another place to do some work, he says.

As for the e-book, Heid suspects people are just like him: He reads popular fiction and detective stories on his e-book, but wants the print edition when he’s reading something meatier and slower, say a biography, he says.

Susan Henricks, the director of the Carnegie-Stout Public Library in Dubuque, continues to gush over the Dubuque library’s $7 million renovation in 2010 and 2011, which she reports brought back to life 8,800 square feet of space in the 110-year-old, 54,000-square-foot library. The library, she says, is the only one in the nation that has won a LEED certification (silver level) for an existing building and also is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Henricks says 75 percent of the residents of Dubuque hold a library card for the local library, and more items are checked out of the library per capita — 12.7 a year — than at any time in the library’s history. In 1984, the per capita figure stood at 6.4 a year, she said.

Today’s library in Dubuque, she says, looks a lot different from the library of even 10 years ago, as the library has weeded out about 110,000 items from a collection of 300,000. The “musty,” “crummy-looking” and the never-read got eliminated in favor of what is “top shelf, in demand and clean and in good repair,” she says.

The library, too, she adds, is continuing to “level the playing field,” providing access to computers, books and more.

“It’s easy to assume that everybody has access, and they do not,” Henricks says. “We see them in here every day.”

Looking ahead

Cedar Rapids’ Pasicznyuk says the library 10 or 20 years from now likely will have fewer print books in it than today as the coming library in downtown Cedar Rapids, like Dubuque’s, will have fewer books than it did just a few years ago. The new Cedar Rapids library, he said, will have about 250,000 books, or 100,000 fewer than the old library did before the 2008 flood.

Pasicznyuk’s guess also is that the library of tomorrow will look more like the picture of the Free Library of Philadelphia of the late 1800s, with patrons interacting more and stacks of books dominating less.

Des Moines’ Heid says today’s library already is a little less quiet a place than it was in the past as it takes on the role of a gathering and meeting place. “So the big question is, what kind of civic space will a library need to provide the citizens of Cedar Rapids in (the future)?” says Pasicznyuk. “Is it really true that our population won’t need civic spaces, they’re all going to stay home and they’re all going to be wired into some kind of neuro-interface? I hope not.“I don’t see a great society or a gracious society where people aren’t educating, aren’t rubbing elbows with one another.”

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