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New libraries are 'cultural hubs,' consultant says

By Megan Workman
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Already downsized in design plans once, a new public library building in Charleston might need to be even smaller than 120,000 square feet so it can fit 21st Century needs, a consultant said Monday night. Public libraries have gone through an evolution in the past 20 years, which officials want to see in the Kanawha County Public Library's proposed new main library.Laura Isenstein, president of Providence Associates, a library-consulting firm, said public libraries today "are the center for 21st century skills."The "cultural hubs," she said, give communities free access to technologies that may not be available in their own homes. Access to computers and software, the Internet -- which aids in workforce development -- and meeting spaces are all available to the public for free, Isenstein said.New features such as automated book returns and self-checkout stands are incorporated in many of today's newest libraries. E-book readers and makerspaces -- areas where library visitors can use multimedia content to compose music or write a book -- are some of the innovations that libraries have now, Isenstein said.Isenstein and other Providence Associates staff spoke to more than 50 people Monday during an informational meeting hosted at Laidley Tower in Charleston. The library-consulting firm provided guidance about the library's building plans.Plans for the new main library building were first drawn up in 2002. The building was scaled down once, from 140,000-square-feet to 120,000-square-feet, both to reduce cost and to make more efficient use of land as it became available near the Clay Center on Leon Sullivan Way.Isenstein said that because so much of the new main library is being digitized, it might need to be even smaller.The new main library would provide the tools and resources necessary to meet the technological needs of the Kanawha County community, Isenstein said."While books are the collaborative consumption of libraries, today it is technology. It's helping parents to work with children at an early age and teens and their world with social media to become content creators," Isenstein said. "Technology is so much a part of how our kids learn and libraries have a role in that." Libraries are places people want to be because they provide something for everyone, Isenstein said, adding that they serve as the heart of a community.She said providing digitally equipped conference rooms and spaces that are adaptable are key to meeting a community's needs."Great cities have great libraries," Isenstein said, "but the [existing main Kanawha County Public] library has served its purpose. The library here has some challenges in its space, let alone technology, to be a 21st century library."One limitation of the current library is how the layout is "chopped up," Isenstein said.The building -- which was finished in 1904 -- is extremely inefficient and costly to operate -- more than a brand new building would cost to operate, she said.
"Do you know the technologies and improvements that have been made in lighting ... plumbing since then?" Isenstein asked the group. "It is not a building that can be changed to reflect what you need in the 21st century."Other factors prevent the Kanawha County Public Library from serving as the "community's living room," she said. For instance, there is no parking, the walls cannot be rearranged and, because of wiring issues, no more electrical outlets can be added.However, building limitations aren't the only reason construction on the main library still hasn't begun more than 10 years after the 2002 announcement.The library launched a campaign in 2006 to raise $37 million for a new main branch. It has raised more than $18.4 million since then, but most of the money has come from private donations.C. David Warren, associate principal consultant for Provide Associates, said he is impressed with how much money has been raised through private funds.But the community needs to "get over this hurdle."
"I commend you on raising $18 million ... but can this be built on just private monies?" Warren asked. "This community has to identify where that money is."Providence Associates staff stressed the importance of raising public funds."I've heard there may be additional private dollars available, but only ... if public funds [become] available first," Isenstein said. "Where can you get those public dollars?"For every $1 of public money invested in the Kanawha County Public Library, there is a $2.24 return on investment, Isenstein said. That return is a conservative estimate, she said, considering the city of Pittsburgh gets back $6 for every $1 spent. Public libraries in South Carolina get a $4 return on investment for every $1 of public money invested, she said.Isenstein said the library consulting firm would come up with the top three projections to "make this project a reality."The next step is hearing from the community.To make the library a dynamic, interactive space that the community considers a destination place, officials have to know what the community wants in its library. Future informational meetings will be hosted, but Isenstein said she didn't have exact meeting dates yet.For more information about the new main library or to donate, call Patty Tompkins at 304-343-4646, ext. 251 or email her at or visit Megan Workman at or 304-348-5113. 
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