Library envy

I'm generally a "buy local" kind of guy. When I want to purchase coffee, books or a good meal, my first inclination is to patronize businesses owned by people who actually live in Lawrence. One of the things I like about this city is that I can do so, generally, without sacrificing quality.So it distresses me somewhat to make the following admission:In the last two years, I've patronized the Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library far more often than the Lawrence Public Library. I've certainly checked out more books down the road; I've probably walked through the doors more often there.The library in Topeka is purely, simply better.The collection of materials there is more than double the size of the Lawrence library - it has been much easier for me to find the books I want in Topeka. It's easier to find an open computer for quick Internet access. And if I want a cup of coffee or sandwich to cozy up with my book, well, I can wander down to the Topeka library's in-house cafe. Lawrence's library is relatively puny. There's a reason for this: The Topeka library there has a budget more than four times as large as the one here.I mention all this because city officials are considering an effort to expand the library here. Considering that Lawrence has one of the most-educated populations in the nation - a citizenry hungry for books and culture - that's not a bad idea. And as they get the expansion underway, all eyes are on Topeka. It's probably fair to say that we have a case of library envy.But maybe we shouldn't.Topeka, it goes without saying, is different than Lawrence. I don't live there, so my observation might be incorrect, but it appears to me that the library there serves as a gathering place for the community - thus the giant meeting rooms, the cafe, the art exhibitions.Lawrence already has all those things in one spot. It's called downtown.Downtown Lawrence on a spring, summer or fall afternoon is a magnificent place. Hundreds of people walking the sidewalks, listening to street musicians, sipping beverages on coffee shop porches, ducking into galleries to look at local art and generally hanging out.Downtown Topeka is, by comparison, decimated.So what Topeka needs and gets from its library is a cultural center, a place for people to experience community. Lawrence already has that.Lawrence's library is on the path to improvement, but it can use more. I look forward to the day where it's easier to find the book I want here than in Topeka.But we should drop the case of library envy as we consider the future. We don't need a library that competes with the one in Topeka. We need the best library for Lawrence.


Joel 17 years, 8 months ago

Hi Bruce:

I'm surprised and grateful that you're weighing in here, thanks.

(And I hope he's not offended by what I wrote.)


Fowler 17 years, 8 months ago

I've always considered the Kansas University system of libraries an excellent supplement to the Lawrence public library. Go there and read.

blixa2x4 17 years, 8 months ago

One of the benefits of living in Lawrence is you can be a patron of the Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library. We service not only the regions in the institution's "title", but TSCPL has a reciprocal borrowing agreement with member libraries of the Northeast Kansas Library System (NEKLS). Any resident of the 14 northeast Kansas counties of NEKLS is eligible to receive a Library card, which means they have the exact same privilages as anyone living in the apartments across the street from our front door--FOR FREE! Meaning any of those people can go on-line and put themselves on hold for, say, Thomas Frank's "What's the Matter with Kansas", and have it mailed to them--FOR FREE! With no punitive fines, free computer training classes, amazing visiting author programs, the nationally recognised Alice C. Sabatini Art Gallery (who by the way have invited Brett Helquist, illustrator for the Lemony Snicket books to visit/talk/exhibit original work on April 23), international/classic/contemporary film series, public programs, TSCPL is unique, a blessing and a truly amazing entity for something that's "free" to Lawrence to use. Maybe Joel is right. Maybe what Lawrence needs is something different than what any Lawrence resident can access 20 miles down the road.

Sarah Mathews 17 years, 8 months ago

it's always confounded me that Lawrence doesn't have a better public library. I suppose the city has always depended on the KU libraries to fill in where the public one leaves off. I would absolutely love to see a better public library built in our city. So often i go to the LPL and the books are either checked out, assumed lost, or just plain not in the system. I can only assume this is because the budget is somewhat lacking and they can't afford to buy more books- and, i suppose, there is no where to house them. I would like to point out, however, that no matter what- the LPL will never have clerks and librarians as sexy as the ones that work at the TPL.

hodgie 17 years, 8 months ago

Having a bigger public library that meets the needs of Lawrence's public is very important. I think another important need for the new Lawrence Public Library is to meet the needs of its employees. I passed over a position at Lawrence Public for a position at Topeka Public because the hourly wage was almost double that of Lawrence.

Joel, thanks for the compliments. I'm passing your blog onto staff here at TSCPL.

libraryguy1 17 years, 8 months ago

In response to blixa2x4 post. I agree with everything that was written, except one small detail. It's not FREE, it's already paid for. The term "FOR FREE" implies there is no cost involved, but that really isn't the case. The taxpayers of Topeka & Shawnee County primarily (with a small amount of State Aid) fund the cost of all the services, which we then share with Library cardholders from Northeast Kansas. I agree also that Lawrence needs and deserves a better library. With this must come the realization that to maintain service, more space requires more staff, and to attact more staff they need to be paid comparably with libraries in the area. As hodgie pointed out, this is not the reality. Keep this in mind when asking for larger, needed or deserved, library.

edie_ 17 years, 8 months ago

Mr. Flanders, When I said that Lawrence needs a decent library, I meant that our town deserves a public library that fits its needs, and indeed Lawrence has grown far beyond the current public library situation. You all have done as much as possible with limited (but needed) resources. I'm impressed with the expansion of free computer services, movies and music, and book selection. I've had several personal experiences with the reference staff trying to fulfill my admittedly strange requests with vim and vigor, going out of their way to assure that we have as many user friendly leads as possible to get the info we need. I meant to encourage everyone to share my support for public space and free information, which in my eyes is purely dazzling, for the reasons I stated and more! Lastly, if it weren't for the library I wouldn't have a job. Where else could I have printed my resume so seamlessly after giving the finger to my academic career? Yours, Edie

P.S. You know I've never once used that golf course the city insisted upon. Have you?

Jill Ensley 17 years, 8 months ago

Having only read one sentence...I BEG TO DIFFER. And it's not (only) blind hatred for T-town talking.

The Topeka library is an architectual monstrosity (from the outside). Frankly, it's fugly. AND the Lawrence library has way more graphic novels (especially those of the indie nature). NYAH!

cottagegirl 17 years, 8 months ago

I recently toured the Topeka library with some friends. I must admit I wasn't thrilled about going, after all, what were they going to show us, books? I was totally wrong, it was a fabulous place. Joel, you were right about the library being a meeting place for the community. The cafe was cool and very handy, the gallery was wonderful and the Kansas writers room on the second floor was amazing. The kids have their own area (and it was very busy). It would be great if we had something like that wonderful place here in Lawrence. The staff treats readers with respect and the patrons respect it right back. At the risk of sounding whiney, I WANT ONE!

chrisgladfelter 17 years, 8 months ago

Whenever I visit my family in Topeka for the holidays, my mom usually asks if I've seen the new library (of couse, in Topeka it's pronounced "lie-berry"). I haven't been in it since I was a kid, but I hear it's the hottest thing to hit the city since 1989 when Vanna White attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony for Westridge Mall. I say "Good for them." Topeka desperately needs something other than rodeos, monster-truck shows, and traffic on Wanamaker. They're valiantly trying to re-engergize their downtown area.

Has anybody heard anything recent about where a new Lawrence library would be, assuming that they don't simply remodel the current building? I remember reading something about New Hampshire Street near the up-and-coming condos and perhaps 11th and Mass where the old Allen Press building sits.

bruceflanders 17 years, 8 months ago

Hi - As the library director, I'm happy to see the discussion on Joel's blog about the library's plans for expansion. First, I want to thank those who have taken time to join this discussion - I appreciate the fact that you care about your library! Second, I want to encourage everyone who has an interest in this topic to visit two Web sites. Please look at You will have an opportunity there to complete a survey relating to the library, and sign up for email updates relating to the library expansion project. Also, please look at http://www.lawrencepubliclibrary/newdirection. That site summarizes the discussions of the New Direction Task Force, which met in 2004, and has many links to additional relevant information.

The Topeka library has many good points, but it would be folly to think that we could simply transplant a carbon copy of it in Lawrence and feel we've done a good job. Joel is right - public libraries must be designed to meet the needs of their local community.

At the same time, we can learn a lot from other communities. Take a look at the /newdirection Web site. There are links to many fascinating, trendsetting public libraries throughout the country.

I would take issue with the comment above that Lawrence needs a "decent" library. I believe we have made excellent strides during the past decade and now have a "decent" library. However, I would in no way characterize our library as "outstanding" and that's what Lawrence needs and deserves. Creating a bigger and better Lawrence Public Library will an exciting adventure.

Let's keep this discussion going. What do you think?

Bruce Flanders (

liz 17 years, 8 months ago

And the Topeka library doesn't do overdue fines. Isn't part of the reason that the Topeka library has more funding is that it also gets county money, whereas the Lawrence one only gets city? I could be totally wrong, I just think I remeber hearing that somewhere. Maybe they just have a better donor base.

Do you have any ideas as to what the best library for Lawrence would be? What do the studies say the people of Lawrence want/need?

leslie 17 years, 8 months ago

In addition to a good, staffed gallery (even if staffed by one person), I'd like to see an expanded special collections area--which could also feed the gallery space on occassion. And I think an improved teen area is very critical.

I worry that too many libraries are spending too much money on technology/internet service. Although I believe technology is very important, so are the books.

Joel 17 years, 8 months ago

Liz: I remember talking to Bruce Flanders, the library director, about fines once. Apparently, it's a critical part of the budget.

My ideas for the library are very simple: More materials -- lots more materials -- and easier access to Internet terminals. But I'm far from the only person whose needs should be served here.

The rest of this post is from a story my colleague Chad Lawhorn wrote in December: ¢¢¢¢¢¢¢¢¢¢¢¢¢¢¢¢¢¢¢¢¢¢

But Flanders doesn't want discussion of possible sites to cause residents to forget about what will be inside the building. He said a larger building was needed because the population of the city had doubled since the current library was constructed in 1972.

The downtown library has more than 400,000 visitors a year and houses more than 270,000 items. And Flanders said the library was dangerously close to having to store some books at an off-site facility, which would mean patrons would have to wait from 24 to 48 hours to check out some materials.

"It gets to the point that if you keep trying to put 10 pounds of sand into a five-pound sack, it will spill over, or else you quit buying sand," he said.

But any new project would be about more than adding space.

"I think the first thing people would notice is that the energy level would be pumped up quite a bit," Flanders said of a new facility.

The plan would be to place an "extraordinary" amount of emphasis on the children's areas of the library. Many new libraries have children's areas that include not only books and tapes but feature a special attraction like an aquarium or dinosaur exhibit.

"It would almost be like a combination of a children's museum and a library," Flanders said.

In addition to expanded children and young adult areas, Flanders said there would be a major upgrade in technology. He said a good guidepost is that Topeka's library has 200 computers wired for Internet access. The Lawrence library has 30.

"I would consider a 10-fold increase in computer space a bare minimum," Flanders said. "And every inch of the building would be set up for wireless access so that people can bring in their laptops to use."

Penzler said he also would like to see the technology expanded to include a teleconferencing and business resource center, along with greatly expanded community meeting space.

Flanders said a new library also would have more quiet space areas, "where people can find a quiet place to read a book or plug in their laptops and get away from the world."

Terry Bush 17 years, 8 months ago

Can I jump in here and just say HERE HERE!!! I am a library junkie. I read my way clear through my elementary school's library, and most of the my highschool's. College library's are bigger, and I didn't get through all of mine...only about 75%. And the librarian's I know think I'm OK (I.e. I don't get on their bad sides), maybe because for the most part I worship them! SO, with that said, I admit that I have stopped going to the Lawrence library entirely, and now only frequent the Topeka library. Topeka's library has tons more books and tapes to choose from, they don't freak out if I am a few days late getting a book or tape returned, and I just feel more welcomed by the staff. It is a shame that Lawrence doesn't have a better library since we're supposed to be such a liberal smart town (maybe since the University has a library, that is supposed to make up for the public library's lacks?). Yet, as Joel points out, Lawrence does other things to offer us that Topeka doesn't have. So it may balance out in the end.... But as a library addict, and a resident of Lawrence, it sure would be a pleasure to have a world class library right in town; one that had all the latest bells and whistles, AND was user friendly! Sigh.... I'd support it for sure! I think I still owe a fine here in's probably 10 years old....

edie_ 17 years, 8 months ago

Lawrence desperately needs a decent library simply because we need to preserve and expand public space. By public I mean not run by churches or business. I appreciate libraries the way I appreciate other opportunities for free information or expression like community run radio (real community radio not NPR sponsored by ADM supermarket to the world), public access television, independent press, and free galleries. I think the fact that you have to find most of your books, CD's, and movies from businesses is a reason why Lawrence should hang it's head in shame.

What say we focus the library fight on preventing Rockhill from having any design authority on the building? High security prisons are really only acceptable as a fetish role playing concept, not as public architecture.

leslie 17 years, 8 months ago

'Fraid I need to disagree. Lawrence is culturally rich enough for a similar library. We desperately need new and more focused art venues that have the liberty of showing art without the commercial need to sell it. (Without going in to it too much here, freedom from the market allows more risky and exciting curatorial choices. The Lawrence Arts Center is the only current downtown location with this freedom.) The meeting rooms will be used by all kinds of businesses, organizations, and clubs. And I think a library cafe would appeal to a more diverse clientele than the downtown coffee shops: teens, seniors, young parents, students, and your garden-variety bookworms (i.e., the usual library patrons) could congregate.

But, yes, most of all Lawrence needs more books.

Joel 17 years, 8 months ago

Leslie: I've seen some pretty odd stuff up for sale on some downtown walls in Lawrence. That's no denigration of the artists -- especially because I suspect you're far more of an arts expert than I -- but is the market really stifling creativity here?

To be clearer: I'm not saying, precisely, that would shouldn't try to give Topeka a run for its money. What I am saying is that the environment in Lawrence is different from Topeka, and that we should craft a new library with the needs and desires of local patrons and taxpayers in mind -- not out of any need to keep up with the Joneses.

By the way: I'm now regretting that it's taken me so long to ever read a Willa Cather novel. "Archbishop" is one of the most sensuous novels I've ever read. Should have it done in a few days...

leslie 17 years, 8 months ago

The market always affects creativity: that's one of the nasty little truths about the art world. Coffee shops always have more freedom in what they show, because their business doesn't depend on moving the art out and onto patrons' walls. Unfortunately, wall space, lighting, and scholarship is limited in these settings.

I would love to see a local nonprofit space that could compare, to some degree, with the Gallery of Art at JCCC (in full disclosure, I worked there for 5 years). Because we never needed to sell any of the work, the curator could concentrate on producing exhibits that were more new or challenging. This, in turn, greatly stimulated the KC art community. A commercial dealer could see the reaction a JCCC should would generate, then bring that artist back feeling a little more confident in the ability to sell the work.

I think the library, given a decent budget for this sort of thing, would benefit the community by producing shows of regional artists, with the occassional national-level artist thrown in. It would be a nice bridge between the missions of the Spencer and the Arts Center.

You raise a good point about tailoring the new library specifically to Lawrence. Unfortunately, I don't have many suggestions, but I do like the art gallery and cafe aspect of the current plan.

squishypoet 17 years, 8 months ago

I am all for a big, new library. Have you SEEN the teen "section"? It's a corner. A very small corner. With one shelving unit and 3/4 of a wall full of books. Oh, and about 10 of those twirly shelving units. It is disgraceful!

I know the library wants to be a resource to kids needing homework help or a place to stay out of trouble after school, but there is just no space for them to do so. The 3 computers there are always being fought over, and there is no chance of getting away from the chatter of the kids working on them. I'm moving on from that section (I probably should have years ago, but what can I say? I'm still a sucker for teen fiction), but I can still see the need for major improvements.

Lawrence is a great town, but there's not a whole lot for teenagers (especially those too young to drive) to do. Wouldn't it be great if the library could become a viable option for these kids?

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