Regional
1:00 am
Tue July 16, 2013

Smaller Budgets, Increased Technology, Drive the Evolution of Libraries

People who use Milwaukee’s east side library will have to visit a temporary site for the next 15 months.

The city has moved the collection to a nearby storefront, while crews raze the old structure on North Ave. and build another in its place.

The new library will differ significantly from the city’s older ones. Nationwide, libraries are trending toward a new model.

A sign points the way to the Villard Square library on Milwaukee's north side
Credit Ann-Elise Henzl

Milwaukee’s showpiece is its central library, downtown. The building is more than 100 years old and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The other libraries have run their course, according to Mayor Tom Barrett.

“The 13 neighborhood libraries -- most of them have been built since the 1960s, some of them in the 1960s. And so, for mechanical purposes and the infrastructure and just the layout of the libraries, things have changed,” Barrett says.

So the city is renovating or rebuilding its libraries, one at a time. A couple years ago, it turned its attention to the Villard Square branch, on the north side. Kirsten Thompson is manager. She says the new library is located a couple blocks from its predecessor, and the financing model is new. Instead of the city tackling the project alone, it collaborated. Now the library’s on the first level, while the upstairs features housing.

“This library is a private-public partnership, and our partners are the Northwest Side Community Development Corporation and the Gorman Corporation, and they own the apartments that are above us. There’s 47 apartments all together,” Thompson says.

Thompson says the city and its partners shared the cost of construction and now share maintenance costs, making the development affordable. The new East Branch will follow Villard’s footsteps, but add new turns.

Rachel Collins is branch manager. She says, like Villard, East will have a re-imagined multi-purpose room. Instead of being a separate gathering space, as in the past, it’ll be flexible.

“We anticipate having large doors that will open up, and when the room is not in use, we’ll have it wide open,” Collins says.

When it’s open, Collins says library users will be able to spread out, to do their business.

“People are using the libraries to fill out job applications, make resumes,” Collins says.

Patrons such as Tamika Thomas. She helped create a job search support group and says it meets at libraries.

The new East library will follow the model of the Villard Square branch, with apartments upstairs
Credit Ann-Elise Henzl

“I usually work from home, but, you know, the more people get on your wireless at home, the slower it becomes. So we thought we could all be more productive here at the library,” Thomas says.

The new library will even offer outdoor seating, so people can comfortably access Wi-Fi, any time. Leaders have seen people, after-hours, outside, leaning against library walls to access their Internet connection.

Milwaukee’s libraries are in step with those around the country, shifting focus from books to technology, according to East Branch Manager Rachel Collins.

“At least half of our customers here are using our computer resources – either literally the laptops and desktops, our Wi-Fi,” Collins says.

“Libraries are helping bridge the digital divide which continues to be a very important issue in our society,” says Barbara Stripling, president of the American Library Association.

“People need access to computers and information and they can’t get the best access just through having a cell phone,” Stripling says.

In addition to having more technology, newer libraries have fewer books, because the use of e-book readers is rising, and so much material can be found online.

Stripling says Milwaukee is also on the same track as other cities in seeking collaborations to reduce costs. She says libraries must find ways to continue their mission of making information available to the public, during a time when money is tight. According to Stripling, library usage around the country has grown since the recession, while library budgets have remained flat, at best.