Fearful Symmetries

Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...

11 April, 2008

The Madison Central Library Deserves Better

It's being reported that efforts for a new Central Library downtown have been proposed.

T. Wall Properties is proposing to demolish the worn, 43-year-old facility on the 200 block of West Mifflin Street and replace it with a $45 million, nine-story structure with ground-floor retail, a three-story library and private offices above it.

As the article notes, the current building is in a sad state with poor HVAC, an elevator that needs to be replaced, and a leaky roof. On top of that, more space is needed. Here we are in the Information Age yet what should be the city's pride and joy of information repository goodness is instead run down and inadequate. While I appreciate Wall's overture, I am disappointed that the main branch of our library system would be just another tenant in the building, sandwiched between Starbucks below and private offices above.

Here is what the developers propose:

It's certainly not the worst looking building ever devised by mankind but it's not really classic library style. I mean, take a look at what Chicago and Milwaukee have for their central libraries:

These are what libraries should look like – colonnades and gargoyles and arches and whatnot. They should be architectural tributes to the intellectual roots of Western civilization and the buildings which kept its knowledge safe during The Dark Ages. Instead we get a demo for the Pella window company.

While Madison doesn't need anything quite so vast, the Madison Central Library should at least no have to share a building. Do any other cities or towns make their central libraries share space with stores and private offices? When I lived up by Eau Claire, the L.E. Philips Memorial Library had its own space. Sure, there were some offices in the basement but they were for related groups like Literacy Volunteers of America. I didn't see a bait shop next to the fiction section at the Stoughton Library last fall when I was there. Did Andrew Carnegie erect mixed-use buildings and tell towns to slap their libraries in the middle somewhere or did he fund stand-alone structures which highlighted the importance of libraries and learning?

Let it be said again – libraries are important. Think of all the knowledge lost when the Library at Alexandria was destroyed, for example. In 378, the Roman historian Marcellinus said, "The libraries are closing forever, like tombs." It didn't take long for the Empire to fall. Today in Madison people are checking out items by the millions and the library provides Internet access to more people each year. Our library deserves better than just being one tenant among many. Check out the Madison Public Library Foundation for more info about their capital campaign for a new Central Library.

Andrew Carnegie called public libraries the "cradle of democracy" and Madison's central cradle should be deemed more than just another tenant on par with fast food restaurants. William of Baskerville sought the finest library in all of Christendom and we should seek the finest library in all of south central Wisconsin.

|| Palmer, 7:49 AM


If Madison only had one library I would agree with the fact that a mixed-use site does not have the grandeur of libraries of yesteryear. But we are blessed with so many libraries throughout downtown Madison. A library used to be a museum of books, but this is no longer the case. Let us remember that we are now in the information age where almost everyone has a reference guide at their fingertips - the internet. Soon google books will scan millions of rare books from all over the world so we can all enjoy them and research them from whereever we are. Gone are the days when our research was limited to how big our city library was. Practically speaking the library is a quiet place for people to interact, read and borrow books. Do we need another 6 story museum of books? Are you going to want to pay extra taxes for something that may become obsolete in fifteen years? Why? I think T. Wall's design is excellent in that it gives something back to the community in a modern environment. The building gains from a lot of natural light for everyone to enjoy especially during our long winters. I think it will rejuvinate our downtown where more people will interact and take advantage of the library. After it opens I'm sure you'll be one of the many users just like the overature center, the Monona Terrace and the beltline highway over the Monona Marsh.
Let's try to make it a little easier to get the obvious projects done before all our good developers leave the city.
Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:27 PM  
Hi Anon - I am an IT worker so I am very well aware that this is the Information Age. Where are all these pubic libraries downtown? There's the Central Library and which other ones? Here's a link to all the locations:


I see only 1 downtown. The university has many fine libraries but they are not open for the public to just walk into and check out materials and use the computers.

And yes, I am willing to pay extra taxes for a nice 3-4 story library. Books will not be obsolete in 15 years. Just because Google has rare books available online doesn't mean everyone will want to read only rare books nor have a device to read them when they want to. Libraries offer access to the latest NYT bestsellers as well.

In addition to light during the winter, I can imagine the heating bill will be ridiculous.

I strictly disagree that libraries are merely museums to books. Having tons of info at your fingertips at home doesn't mean that you are automagically endowed with the ability to parse it all. Besides, libraries do more than just offer books. I'm not sure why you can't get past this "museum of books" hang up. Decades of periodicals don't magically get digitized; libraries are community meeting places; they host activities and offer children space to gather to enjoy reading and associated activities which cannot be done alone in front of a computer.

Of course I'll use the library on the odd occasion regardless of what the building looks like. I go to the Overture, not because I think it is the most aesthetically pleasing building but because there is no where else for me to go to see the MSO and the other offerings. I have no other option. I don't understand why you accuse me of being anti-Overture, anti-Monona Terrace, and anti-Beltline. My post addressed none of these and I am decidedly not advocating that we not build a library.

Despite being in the Information Age library use continues to increase. More people are checking out materials and accessing the Internet despite your claim that "almost everyone" has it at home.

I'm sorry that you seem to have such a low opinion of libraries.
Blogger Palmer, at 3:09 PM  

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