Watchung Library Expansion Plans Get Divided Response
Residents see plans as necessary for community—or an anachronism.
Perhaps residents' reactions to the proposed $4.23 million Watchung Library expansion given at the special Borough Council meeting Monday is a Rhorschach test of sorts: to some, it's an unnecessary expenditure to build a monument for old technology.
For others, it's a key component on keeping Watchung a vital community.
Plans for the project were unveiled after a six-year study by a committee, which determined a flexible plan providing space for community events and meetings would be the most appropriate recommendation for the outdated and cramped building currently housing the library's 30,000 books.
Borough Councilman Stephen Pote, the committee's liason to the Borough Council, said the proposal will be put to the vote on November's ballot, and noted the $4,230,000 estimated cost of refurbishing and contruction would be divided between donations, county library system contributions, the borough's building fund and taxpayers.
"In whole, we're hoping the impact to the taxpayer would be greatly reduced," Pote said.
The project included adding 9,000 square feet to the existing 8,000 square foot shell, maximizing the use of usable space on the lot. The existing library building—a residence built in 1945 and not substantially updated since the 1970s when the library moved in—will be converted to an open area on the main floor, with two meetings rooms on the second floor and offices in the attic.
Architect Pedro Ortiz, of Foreman Architect Engineers in Manheim, Pa., said the design includes all fixtures, and noted nothing would be bolted to the floor, allowing rearrangement or other changes to meet future needs.
Ortiz said renoovations were needed to address not only code and safety requirements, but also for space needed for current uses.
"The reason we are doing this is because the books have taken over the library," he said. "It really could be a science fiction movie where the books ahve come to life and taken over everything.
Much of the work proposed would bring bring the building to current code and accessibility requirements.
But some residents wondered why the town should bother improving the library, when it seems apparent society is moving towards electronic media.
"I don't understand this whole thing," resident Jay Heyman said. "If you want information, there's Google; if you want books, there's Nook...We're in a cyber-world, everything has changed."
Several others also said they didn't think this was an appropriate time to spend $4 million for a library, with most questioning the future of places to store books.
But supporters said a library is not just a place for books, but a source of information—Dorothy Addario, a member of the study committee, noted libraries have access to databases for professional and student research that is not available to the general public.
"I had great concerns about where libraries were going, in terms of brick-and-mortar libraries," she said. "We came to the conclusion that books are never really going to go away."
Even if they do, some noted the library is still aplace where families congregate.
"When you go to the library, it's full of people," High Tor Road resident Debra Downs said. Right now, I feel the library had crowded out the people."
Pote said the bottom line is that there are "opportunities for funding that exist today" that make construction advantageous, including available grants and generally lower-then-normal construction costs.