- Steve Bennish Columbus bureau
Libraries across the state have spent more than a quarter of a billion dollars in a few years on massive renovations and new buildings, transforming heavily used public facilities into civic showpieces that offer much more than books, according to the State Library of Ohio.
Since 2010, in an era when many voters say they are fed up with government, Ohio voters have approved 88 percent of library levy and bond requests, according to data from the Ohio Library Council.
That money has paid for new branches, more computers and multi-media tools, space for community events and ambitious overhauls of main libraries. From 2011 to 2014, total capital expenditures by 251 library systems was more than $225 million.
The library systems aren’t done yet. Dayton and Columbus are the latest examples of this trend.
Dayton’s main library, opened in 1962 when John F. Kennedy was president, is undergoing a dramatic $63 million rebuild that will double the size of the long-cramped building, expanding it to 225,000 square feet.
The new main library will feature a three-story “indoor town square” atmosphere centered around an atrium filled with natural light. It is designed with features to encourage community involvement and collaboration.
Seventy miles east in the state capital, Columbus Metro Library officials are celebrating the grand re-opening this weekend of the main library after a 16-month, $35 million renovation.
In Cuyahoga County, $110 million was raised to support an improvement plan launched in 2010.
“Ohio libraries have always been supported by the public and have been among the most heavily used libraries around the country,” said Tim Kambitsch, Executive Director of Dayton Metro Library. “Because so many residents use libraries, it’s not surprising that when it comes to supporting them in expansions and updates, support is readily given.”
The new Columbus library features a soaring three-story atrium filled with natural light, a coffee bar, gift shop, and public art and meeting rooms.
The new reading room practically insists that patrons sit down and stay awhile. Light pours through two-story windows overlooking the Topiary Park of Columbus and a patio. Before the makeover, the east end of the building was walled-off and library patrons barely knew the seven-acre park was there, said Columbus Metro Library Chief Executive Officer Patrick Losinski.
Columbus will show off the new main library to the world in August when it hosts 4,000 library officials for the International Federation of Library Associations annual conference.
The main library is the fourth of 10 projects Columbus Metro Library has completed in its $120 million building boom. Losinski said three decades ago, libraries served as book vaults, but the focus has now shifted from collections to connections.
“It’s not just about libraries, it’s about new civic space,” he said ahead of the public opening this weekend.
Columbus and Dayton are not alone in Ohio’s library building boom. In 2014, six of the state’s eight largest library systems either renovated or built, according to statistics kept by the State Library.
“I just think it’s a generational phase of updating in cities like Dayton and Cuyahoga County and here in Columbus — as well as projects scattered throughout the state,” Losinski said.
When it opens in April, the downtown Dayton Metro Library will feature a 299-seat auditorium, an intimate “black box” performance space that seats 150, a recording lab for audio-visual productions, two fireplaces, a cafe, and a genealogy and history room.
There will be a children’s play area, an area for teens, an outdoor terrace, meeting rooms and a career and business resource center.
So much of the old library was filled with library operations that the public had only 28,000 square feet available. When it reopens, the new library will have four times that space for the public.
There also will be two floors of underground parking, 140 computers for public use, and industrial-strength WiFi that has five times the capacity than the network in place before the library closed for renovation, said Kambitsch. There will be plenty of exhibition space to show off gems in the library’s collection, including scrapbooks kept by the Wright brothers.
Kambitsch, who worked at the library as a high school student, has enough history with the institution to grasp the magnitude of the changes. The library that opened at the height of the Cold War had a fallout shelter in the basement loaded with barrels of civil defense drinking water and crackers in the event of a nuclear war.
The new library is being built on the sturdy “bones” of the old library, saving $7 million in expenses. Serious funding arrived in 2012 when voters overwhelmingly passed of a bond levy that raised $187 million. It was a popular proposition even among recession-weary voters, Kambitsch said. Sixty-two percent of county voters approved it.
That money is paying for:
• Eleven new branches in Brookville, East Dayton/Riverside, Huber Heights, Miamisburg, New Lebanon, Northmont, Northwest Dayton, Southeast Dayton, Trotwood, Vandalia, and West Dayton.
• Expanding and/or renovating five branches and moving backroom functions to an operations center in the renovated former Hauer Music building nearby.
The library has been helped by a $1 million anonymous donation. The Eichelberger Foundation provided $500,000. On top of that, there was a $35,000 grant from the Francis Crosthwaite Fund and the Willard E. Talbot Memorial Fund of the Dayton Foundation. The Berry Family Foundation provided $25,000 for a quiet reading room.
Kambitsch said the spirit of the library will change with the reconstruction, too.
“One of the real changes in libraries (is) they’ve become more places for people to gather, not just repositories of information,” he said. “I am so pleased voters gave us this awesome responsibility.”
It is hoped that construction on the main library will be completed by the end of the year. At that time, workers will begin what will be months of moving furnishings and collections into the building and completing the finishing touches.
Cuyahoga County Public Library, which serves 47 communities through 27 branches in northeast Ohio, embarked on a substantial building improvement plan in June 2010. The system raised $110 million through the sale of bonds, private donations and operational savings to finance the replacement of inefficient buildings.
So far 19 projects have been completed, with the most recent being the renovation of the Brooklyn branch. The trustees of the CCPL wanted branch libraries to be the same level of quality, regardless of what community they serve.
Ohio public libraries faced dire straits not long ago when state revenue took a dive along with the national economy, said Doug Evans, director of the Ohio Library Council.
In 2009, the Public Library Fund received 2.22 percent of the state’s general revenue fund, but lawmakers trimmed it back to 1.97 percent in response to a budget crisis. That led local systems to ask voters for levies and bond issues — and they mostly said yes.
In 2004, just 74 public library systems had any local tax levies; now 190 of the 251 systems receive local support.
“It’s a complete turnaround,” Evans said.