Humanities Institute

HI Community Sabbatical Grant Helps Shape Austin's New Central Public Library

Mon, April 17, 2017
HI Community Sabbatical Grant Helps Shape Austin's New Central Public Library
Austin's New Central Public Library

What is the role of central public libraries in the 21st century? Executive Director of the Austin Public Library Friends Foundation and former recipient of a 2009-2011 Humanities Institute Community Sabbatical Research Grant, Tim Staley, used his sabbatical term with the Humanities Institute to investigate the resurgence of the new central public library in the United States. Over the last roughly 10-15 years, several new central libraries have been built throughout the country, and Austin’s own new Central Library is expected to open downtown this fall. (Keep a look out for opening events at http://library.austintexas.gov/.) As Executive Director of the Library Foundation, Mr. Staley has led the fundraising efforts and helped plan for Austin’s new central library.

These new central libraries, Mr. Staley says, have “reasserted the relevance and importance of the public library in 21st century America.” In addition to print materials, new central libraries also provide access to the internet and to digital materials that many people cannot access from home, as well as a range of programming that benefits communities, all of which expand the role of library facilities.

During his sabbatical, Mr. Staley visited the new central libraries in Phoenix, Seattle, Salt Lake City, and Minneapolis, which he described as “offering a vast array of services and cultural programs that have redefined the public library.” These services and programs include:

  • A higher percentage of square footage devoted to public space, particularly community meeting rooms, than what is offered in traditional central libraries’ design;
  • Large auditoriums that allow libraries to expand their programming to lectures, film screenings, and other presentations that draw large numbers of people;
  • Art galleries that allow libraries to exhibit collections and to partner with other local organizations that may have limited or no exhibition space;
  • Space solely dedicated to both elementary school-aged children and teenagers;
  • Resources that address technology needs, including access to internet databases and various software and equipment not found in the average household.

Staley says that the Austin Central Library will similarly include a 350 seat auditorium and event space, an art gallery, a rooftop garden and event space, a cooking demonstration area, a room devoted solely to local collections (by artists, musicians, filmmakers and writers), and a dedicated children’s library and teen library. It will also provide access to newer technology, including Google Video and chat technology in the library’s 12 meeting rooms. The goal of such facilities is to provide a venue for community dialogue and cultural interaction. Patrons can use, for example, video technology and meeting rooms to access city council meetings and engage with decisions being made that affect their lives.

“The Humanities Institute’s Community Sabbatical Research Leave,” wrote Mr. Staley at the conclusion of his sabbatical term, “allowed me to come to a thorough and specific understanding of the contemporary central library’s potential as a dynamic institution capable of enhancing the lives of its community members and, but most importantly, through my sabbatical research I came to understand how specifically Austin’s new central library may also reach this potential.  This understanding of how exactly a central library benefits their respective communities [enhanced] the Foundation’s ability to make a compelling case for a new central library to the Austin community.”

During his sabbatical, Mr. Staley consulted with Dr. Fritz Steiner, former dean of the School of Architecture at UT-Austin until 2016 and current Dean and Paley Professor of the University of Pennsylvania School of Design, and Dr. Loriene Roy, Professor in the School of Information at UT-Austin.

Listen to Tim Staley discuss the importance of libraries in communities, why libraries need your support, and how you can get involved on this recent episode of Austin Focus.

View more photos of Austin's new Central Public Library here

The Humanities Institute partners with the Austin Public Library on our monthly Controversy & Conversation film screening series, held at the Terrazas Branch, and our monthly Democracy & Community Action Reading Group, held at the Cepeda Branch.

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