Approve funding for library repairs now, but how can we make this asset sustainable?

6 Feb

By Bob Croce, EOP Publisher

library

The historic Peabody Institute Library

A balancing act is going on right now between the need to be watchful of a limited pool of taxpayer dollars, and the necessity for preserving a historic and valuable community resource.

I’m talking about the current request to fund $3.1 million to make repairs on the Peabody Institute Library, a historic landmark downtown that was given to the city in 1852 by native son and world-renowned philanthropist George Peabody.  Since then, it has been a treasured resource for the community and in 1973 was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Now, we come to our dilemma.

Being that it is a 161-year-old structure, continuous repair costs are soaring, and they are soaring during days of dwindling state aid to cities and towns, and an already increasing tax burden on the middle class citizenry of working class Peabody.

Making matters more complicated are the current infrastructural needs all over the city. Among the largest projects are the tens of millions to be spent on a flood mitigation plan for Peabody Square, and a $40-plus million dollar (and much-needed) new middle school.

Complicating matters further are those in the community, and on the City Council, who feel that brick and mortar libraries are nearing obsolescence in a big data world where almost everything is available electronically, and where there are more personal electronic devices than there are toothbrushes.

But … can we afford as a society to just abandoned brick and mortar libraries?

Of course not.

If I were on the City Council, my vote on the $3.1 million would be “yes.” But my yes vote would come with conditions. I think some people have misunderstood Councilor Jim Liacos’ use of the phrase “money pit” during the recent debate on funding of the repairs. I haven’t spoken to Jim about this, but I think what he might be saying is, OK, we’ll approve the $3.1 million now, but can we please take a more extensive look at the future of the library and come up with a plan that ensures the building is sustainable from the standpoint of what the community can afford?

That doesn’t mean that we should ever consider bringing in the wrecking ball on a building of such historic significance. After all, I don’t think the citizens of Mount Vernon would knock down Washington’s farm house just because it was too expensive to maintain.

But what it does mean is a sensible master plan when it comes to refurbishment and ongoing maintenance. In other words, if we spend $3.1 million today, let’s hope it doesn’t mean another $3.1 million next year, and the year after that. After all, it was only two years ago that we spent another $3.1 million to fix the HVAC system.

If it meant that it could operate without further cost and within its annual budget for the next 20 years, I actually believe the taxpayers would warm up to spending even more on the library now. Maintenance would obviously then be the key factor, and at this point it should trouble taxpayers that many of these current repairs are being requested for a wing of the building that’s only about 40 years old. If we did an even larger renovation now, might we also be able to tap into some historic preservation funds, or perhaps, solicit some help from the private sector?

The bottomline, though, is – even in the age of smart phones, tablets, and data constantly at our fingertips – the main branch library needs to remain what it is now: A valuable community asset.

By the way, before the City Council takes this vote, I hope all 11 city councilors will tour the library to see what we’d be getting for our tax dollars. Library Director Martha Holden invited the entire council for a tour this week, and only four of them showed up. Let’s give the benefit of the doubt that the remaining seven didn’t show because of conflicts.  But  let’s hope they will tour on their own before voting to bond for the $3.1 million.

6 Responses to “Approve funding for library repairs now, but how can we make this asset sustainable?”

  1. ann February 6, 2013 at 1:06 pm #

    We need to keep our libraries even if it is just for the historical aspect of them. The issue here is as always the money to be spent.
    1)How much have they already spent before they asked for the additional 3.1?
    2) Did we ever get an itemized list of what was to be done at the price we are paying?There may be things we could take off that were not as needed.
    3) Who is the contractor doing the work and why did he not foresee some of these issues? How could he not have had an idea this may have happened? Is this the first historical building hes done?
    4) If we are going to fall into the disabilities act we need to stop now and start later. I am all for access but in this economy we do not have the extra money needed to do all this. We are talking about public funds for a public building. Just like the schools some things cant be done no matter how much they may need to be and we may want to do them.

  2. Anonymous February 6, 2013 at 2:56 pm #

    George Peabody left a legacy of valuing education and libraries. To fail to take care of the what should be considered a historic landmark and an important asset to our community would be an insult to our community’s founding father’s philanthropic intentions.

  3. the Outfront Guy* February 6, 2013 at 3:20 pm #

    OG says…so all prior existing mayoral administrations and City Councils have been asleep at the wheel on this issue? help me understand why this ‘suddenly’ appears on Teflon Ted’s watch with a laundry list of needs…..

  4. redel17 February 6, 2013 at 5:20 pm #

    I strongly disagree with the concept that brick and mortar libraries are nearing obsolescence in this big data world that we live in. As I would be lost without a toothbrush in the medicine cabinet so would I be at a loss without a physical book at my bedside. Although I am reasonably computer savvy, snuggling up with an e-reader is just not the same. Access to the vast holdings of the PIL, augmented by its partnership with NOBLE – The North of Boston Library Exchange have provided me a great resource to satisfy my eclectic reading tastes. Since my retirement 10 years ago I have borrowed over 227 books from the library with a retail value in excess of $4,350 and have attempted to express my gratitude with repeated donations to the “Friends of the Library” fund.. To those Councillors that have not yet explored the resources of this vital city asset, please do so before forming an opinion on the merits of its future. And then vote to preserve this entity.

  5. the Outfront Guy* February 6, 2013 at 9:56 pm #

    OG says…let’s ask some tough questions here about library usage in general….what percent of Peabody residents may currently use the library? how many of you have actually been there lately? how many of you have never even set foot in the place? do our kids go to the library when they are in middle school or high school ? do we need a main library plus two branch libraries? do we want to keep this expensive building to maintain just to say that we have a library? how much value is our library TRULY adding to the community? would many residents would truly miss it if we had to close it? these are all difficult questions and I would venture to say that in another place and time I would never dream of typing these words…BUT times have changed…the price tag to fix and maintain is quite high….let the community speak !

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  1. Please tune in tonight for a live ‘You Make the Call’ show « Eye on Peabody - February 6, 2013

    […] will be the giant billboard on Lowell Street in Ward 5, the $3.1 million funding request for the Peabody Institute Library, the special election for State Rep, and much […]

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