Our Next Library Won’t Be A Library (And I Feel Fine)

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from an op-ed that I wrote. It ran in the June 28th edition of the BCH. – Paul

The latest twist of our long and winding journey to getting a new town library will play out in the coming weeks, as Belmont’s Board of Library Trustees seeks to convince the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners (MBLC) to extend a $7 million grant for the construction of a new Main Library, even though our town will not be able to build on the Concord Ave. site originally proposed

The proposed Belmont Public Library

We’re not likely to see this facility built, given the collapse of a proposed land swap with the Belmont Public Schools.

The Belmont Public Library

Our new library will be the most used and most popular public building in town. But it will serve many more purposes than just book lending.

There are a couple options here: either the MBLC will accede to the Board’s request, giving us a boost in State funding towards the estimated $19 million price tag of a new Library, or it won’t. If it doesn’t Belmont will have to go to the back of the line for MBLC funding– a big loss.
With all the back and forth about where to put a new library and how to pay for it, Belmontonians have been left to wonder: is a new library really needed. Or, if it is needed, should it be at the top of a long list of postponed capital projects. Some have mused, publicly, whether libraries are even needed in the age of e-readers, ubiquitous Internet connectivity and Google.

Amid all this uncertainty, let me state my beliefs. First: in the not-distant future, Belmont will build a new library. Second: that library will continue to be the most-used, most important and most popular public service the town offers its residents. And, finally: regardless of where it’s sited, how much it costs or what it’s called, Belmont’s next library won’t be a library – at least as most of us have known them. In a way, we’re fortunate. Our town library is reaching the end of its useful life at a time when libraries – far from becoming obsolete – are being reimagined and reborn as the beating hearts of a knowledge and information based society. All over the country – all over the world– towns, cities and universities are opening new libraries or rededicating old ones that bear little resemblance to the librarium (literally, Latin for “chest of books”) of old.

Instead, these new buildings are, as The New Republic described them “heavily used, not-for-profit communal spaces.” In fact, our current library already serves that purpose: giving residents access to a whole menu of different “media” including videos, Internet, shared databases and communal meeting space. The problem is that it’s carrying out that mission in a building designed and built half a century ago for storing and circulating books.