At new the Austin Central Library, the public settles in


Library Foundation executive director Tim Staley doesn’t have an office at the new Central Library.

Instead he takes meetings in one of the sleek glass-walled conference rooms that overlook the library’s light-drenched six-floor atrium, the building’s defining interior feature. The conference rooms are free to reserve, an electronic sign outside each flashing the schedule.

“I love seeing the way the public has taken to the place instantly — how settled in everybody already seems,” said Staley. “It’s as though this place has been here all along. It shows there a craving for this kind of public space.”

Austin Central Library.
The rooftop garden and lounge area at the new Austin Central Library. Photo by Sightlines.

Like many next-era central libraries that cities around the country have added to their urbanscapes since the turn of the last century, Austin’s is a multi-purpose information center and public gathering space. Books are certainly still a part of these 21st-century everything-happens-here libraries. But so are technology rental kiosks, cafés, rooftop gardens, event theaters and art galleries. Austin library even sports a cooking demonstration space and a bicycle parking garage.

When Staley and I meet, just a week after the 200,000-square-foot building opened to the public, every conference room is filled. Building-wide, seemingly every conceivable area is occupied.

Staley is settled into the routine of using the conference rooms when he’s at the new building. A private non-profit organization, the Library Foundation’s offices are actually elsewhere.

The foundation’s recent campaign in support of the new Central Library raised $2.5 million to enhance public programs and an additional $400,000 towards the first-ever endowment for Austin’s public libraries.

“No public library system can rely solely on municipal funding for everything it does,” Staley said.

Among the foundation’s programs are the Badgerdog youth writing program and the New Fiction Confab, a one day mini-fest. It also coordinates the Mayor’s Book Club.

With its 350-seat events theater, an art gallery and a rooftop event space, the new building is a public program presenter’s ideal, Staley said.

For the library’s grand opening, the foundation coordinated and supported the exhibit “Lance Letscher: Books,” a sweeping show of the Austin artist who creates deeply personal and often enigmatic collages of vintage books, magazines and other paper ephemera. Featured are recent collages, the result of Letscher’s practice of starting each day making what he refers to as a book, a cover for an imaginative volume.

In January the foundation will screen “The Secret Life of Lance Letscher,” a deeply personal new documentary made by Austin film director Sandra Adair.

Perhaps a long-held sense of anticipation has prompted the public to fit itself so comfortably in the new library.

When Mayor Steve Adler addressed the crowds gathered at the opening gala he said: “It feels like an entire generation worked on this and that’s not an exaggeration.”

It’s not an exaggeration.

Calls for replacing the 110,000-square-foot Faulk Central Library, which opened in 1979, began long before the turn of the millennia.

It wasn’t until 2006, however, that voters supported a bond package that included $90 million for a new central library. Two years later Lake/Flato Architects was selected to design a new building that would join the Seaholm District, a massive urban redevelopment project transforming a former industrial section of southwest downtown once anchored by the  Seaholm Power Plant.

The city council approved the project in 2013 with a budget of $120 million and in May of that year ground broke. Since then additional cost increases added another $5 million to the project.

The complexities of the technology-loaded and multi-purpose building challenged the city’s project management. Repeatedly, the opening date was push backed.

But now that it’s opened, there’s no looking back for those like Staley who thrill to the possibilities the new library holds.

“There’s a grandeur to this building but there’s a welcoming openness too,” said Staley. “I think it raises the bar for what people expect a central library in a city the size of Austin can deliver, what kind of programs we can engage the public with.”

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
An award-winning arts journalist, Jeanne Claire van Ryzin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Sightlines.

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