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Council Checks Out Our Libraries, Some of Which (Hint: Bishop Arts) Will Get Quite Fancy

Yesterday we got 'round to covering the first half of the council's Arts, Culture & Libraries Committee meeting -- the part about how other cities spend more on their arts organizations than Dallas, and how we might be able to fix that. (Smoke, smoke, smoke that cigarette tax.) This morning, we return to the second half: Interim Director of Libraries Corinne Hill's presentation, a rather nice history lesson that sums up with docs that show how little Dallas spends on libraries' materials and the department's overall operating budget when compared to other big cities -- charts and graphs that look almost identical to those prepared by the Friends of the Dallas Public Library.

More about that discussion in a moment. First, though: During her presentation, Hill said the city would be doing itself a big favor by actually completing the Dallas Public Library Master Plan, which was written more than a decade ago and which, in part, assessed the needs of the branches and recommended makeovers or outright do-overs when necessary. Right now, Polk Wisdom and Fretz Park are scheduled to receive their makeovers in the coming fiscal year, while the White Rock Hills Branch is due to open its doors in the coming spring. Five other branches (Highland Hills, North Oak Cliff/Bishop Arts, Preston Royal, Park Forest and Forest Green) are in the design stage of their redos.

Ann Margolin, who chairs the new committee, asked Hill: "Should libraries of the future be so bricks-and-mortar dependent? I see the libraries we're building, they're 18,000- to 20,000-square-foot buildings. In completing the master plan, are we taking old-style libraries and continuing to build them when perhaps that isn't needed anymore?"

Hill responded by repeating something she's told us before -- that the libraries are still needed in the neighborhoods, where they serve as community "anchors" and "as more of a place to gather." She then revealed some details about the North Oak Cliff branch overhaul. Spoiler: artists' studios.

"I can see the buildings looking differently from the ones being built right now," Hill said as she spoke further about The Libraries of Tomorrow. "I think they will look different, with more collaborative space ... and almost become the community's living room." Margolin fretted over that phrase because, after all, "we have rec centers too, so that's an interesting discussion -- what's the difference between the two." You mean, besides the books?

"When you go to a Starbucks, people will pay $5 for a cup of coffee so they can read a book and work online, and I see the library becoming that place," Hill said. "We're also watching our homes become smaller. Society is changing. We don't have the focus on things anymore."

Tennell Atkins then wanted to know how the Highland Hills redo was coming. The design's almost done, he was told, but there's no money to build the thing. Too bad too, since the city's made the decision to move it off Simpson Stuart and place it near a park, incorporating some of that outdoor into the indoor design. Said the council member: "How can we think more out of the box?"

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Well ... there's always the North Oak Cliff/Bishop Arts Branch under design at the moment. Delia Jasso kicked off that discussion by talking about the need for branches' collections to better reflect the communities around them. "Build collections the neighborhood wants to see," said the council member, to which Hill responded: "Absolutely. We're grounded in the community, and it means the services we provide are customer-driven." Then she pointed to the under-design Bishop Arts Branch as evidence of its connectedness to the community.

"I am really excited about the Bishop Arts Branch," she said. "The design for that building is amazing, and one of the things I absolutely love is: The art in that community is so huge that we're putting studios in so artists have a place to work and a place to keep their work and create a space where they can show." That, she says, will help make the library "a destination," which is why "I am beside myself about that building."

But, of course, there remains the question of funding -- and no matter which chart you look at, the library's or the Friends', Dallas ranks low when it comes to the amount of money the city puts on its shelves. Jerry Allen, who'd already noted Cleveland's at the top of the pops when it comes to arts funding, saw it once again way above Dallas on the library funding list and asked: What gives? "Why do they have so less people but so much more money?" he asked. "Be honest. Mary's not listening." Referring, of course, to City Manager Mary Suhm.

"I have a girlfriend who works in Cleveland, and I know in Cleveland, they have, for example, they get part of the sales tax just to purchase enough copies so people aren't waiting for popular titles," Hill said. "Half a cent of the sales tax goes for just that purpose. Different cities do different things. Some of it's taxes. You make decisions, you make choices."

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