Austin is getting an expensive library of the future

The people of Austin, Texas voted in 2006 to construct a new library in the middle of downtown on Cesear Chavez Street. The library, originally slated to cost $90 million, recently ran into some budget trouble and the leaders of the project asked for more funding – an additional $30 million, to be exact.

In return, representatives and city officials decided unanimously to give the contractors of the project an additional $30 million without consulting with any of the taxpayers from which the money came or putting the issue to ballot. Recently, investigations into the deal to pour more money into the library project are turning some heads, and feelings are mixed – especially after it was revealed that increased funding for 911 staffing, firefighters, and police officers was denied the same year the extra $30 million in contractor fees was approved.

The library itself is supposed to be a “library of the future,” and is certainly working hard to live up to that with a number of amenities. In addition to an underground parking garage for visitors, the library features a restaurant, event center with seating for more than 300 people, and an outdoor café with an attached art gallery. Patrons will be able to check out technology as well, such as iPads – these technologies have accounted for millions of dollars in project money allocations already.

Don Zimmerman, representing the Travis County Taxpayers Union, is opposed to the library, noting that the city could “build a very good library that can serve the public for $20-$30 million.”

Zimmerman and those with similar concerns question the necessity of all of the extras, including dining areas, in a library. At their core, libraries are about access to books and learning materials, and about increasing literacy and interest in said materials among the local populace.

Still, many in the community are thrilled at the prospect of having such a modern, diverse library at their fingertips. Parents have expressed satisfaction with the fact that their children will have a large, exciting place to go to work on their reading and studying skills.

They may have a point, as well: A modern library with attractions besides just the books themselves – iPad rentals, music libraries, etc. – might be the key to engaging younger generations and getting them into the library in the first place. Also, dining areas and an art gallery could help to make the library a common hangout for kids and teens, with the potential to break what may be seen among youngsters as boring stereotypes associated with public libraries.

Whether the costs are exorbitant or not, and whether or not the city would be better off building a simple “$20-30 million” library, as Mr. Zimmerman suggests, has yet to be seen. Regardless, the project will proceed as planned and the city of Austin, Texas will have its new library before too long. That makes some, like Rebecca Schwarz, very happy; “I’m a big believer in keeping my kids in books and keeping their reading level up and I could not afford to do that, I am happy to pay some taxpayer money,” she said.