Meeting Watch: Library Board (17 Nov 2008)

Building design, literacy initiatives discussed

You can tell it’s a longer-than-usual meeting of the Ann Arbor District Library board when it adjourns later than city council. The Monday evening meeting included a discussion of the board’s vision for the new downtown library building, and presentations by city planner Wendy Rampson about the A2D2 zoning proposals. Three staff members also briefed the board on a wide range of literacy programs offered by the library.

Audit report

Dave Fisher of the accounting firm Rehmann Robson gave a brief summary of findings from the audit of the library’s fiscal year ending June 30, 2008. The audit determined that the library’s finances were in good shape, and included a couple of minor recommendations related to internal controls. One of the recommendations related to keeping more up-to-date worksheets on the library’s inventory of assets, which includes items valued at $1,000 or more. The library’s director, Josie Parker, said that many libraries tie their worksheets to items valued at $5,000 or more, and that might make more sense. Later in the meeting, board member Prue Rosenthal, who chairs the budget and finance committee, said they’d considered raising the amount to $5,000, but had reached no decision yet. Board members had no questions for Fisher about the audit.

Director’s report

Josie Parker described “a very interesting week” for the library system. On Sunday, she and eight library staffers met with about 25 users of the county’s Library for the Blind and Physically Disabled, for which AADL is assuming responsibility. They had mailed invitations to 500 people, and though only 25 people came, it was a cold, snowy afternoon so they were pleased with the turnout, she said. The people who came were very interested in talking with the library staff, since the relationships they’d developed with the Library for the Blind employees – who were not hired as part of this transfer – were an important part of that service. Parker said the people who attended gave some great feedback, and that she and her staff were able to address most of their questions and concerns.

The Ladies Library Association, a group which founded the library 170 years ago, is still active in its support and has recently selected an oil painting to be hung at the new Traverwood branch, Parker said. Titled “Still Life with Brushes,” the work was created by local artist Mignonette Yin Chen. Two current board members – Prue Rosenthal and Jan Barney Newman – are members of the association.

On Friday, about 400 people in their teens and early 20s came to the downtown library for a talk and performance by Nerd Fighters – brothers John and Hank Green, who’ve become an Internet phenom. They’re on tour now, and clearly a draw – their fans showed up though there was virtually no local publicity. “We’ve never brought a crowd of that age group and size here,” Parker said.

Finally, she noted that Eli Neiburger and the library’s IT staff were instrumental in organizing Saturday’s “National Gaming Day @ your library.” The event, held locally at the Malletts Creek branch, allowed video gamers to play in real time with each other across the country. The technology enabling this project was developed by the Ann Arbor library’s staff.

Articulating a vision for the new library

Carl Luckenbach, lead architect for the downtown library project, began his presentation by noting that “we have nothing as interesting as Nerd Fighters to talk about.” He summarized some of the aspects of the proposed building that he felt they’d come to consensus on: the concept of the library as a “community living room” that’s highly transparent and visible to the street; the decision to build the library out to the sidewalk, with its primary orientation facing the proposed Library Lane; the commitment to sustainability, reflected in both design and construction; various other design aspects, such as “zoning” activities based on noise levels, with floors becoming progressively quieter as you go up.

“I think we agreed it’s a 21st century library and should look like it,” he said, adding that he wanted to hear what exactly that meant to them. Turning to board member Ed Surovell, Luckenbach said, “Ed, rumor has it that you’ve got some strong feelings and I’d love to hear them.”

So Surovell kicked off a discussion aimed at guiding the building’s design. “I think the building needs to be monumental,” he said. “I think it needs to be a grand statement of purpose and place.”

Ann Arbor doesn’t have any building of modern architectural significance, he said. “We don’t yet have an iconic structure.” The downtown library building is now “surrounded by mediocrity,” and this new structure should set a standard for future development that will inevitably follow.

“We haven’t fared well in our city and I don’t want to be responsible for a failure,” Surovell said. “And it’s all in your hands. It’s a huge load, but you have a board that’s going to stand behind you.”

Prue Rosenthal said she wants a building that’s iconic and enduring, as well as suited to its function. “I would like it to be unsilly,” she said, later adding that “I want it to mark its time as well as being useful. I don’t want it to be a throwback.”

Barbara Murphy agreed that the building should not be silly, but said she would like to see some playful elements in the design. She cautioned against having a structure that was impressive yet “frightening,” and said it should be warm and inviting, a place where people of all ages feel comfortable, light and airy and designed so that some of its activity is visible from the street. And “no halo,” she quipped, referring to the widely maligned design feature that encircled Michigan Stadium – then was taken down – during president Lee Bollinger’s tenure.

Margaret Leary talked about the importance of the quality of materials and finishes used in construction, wanting to build something that people would respect. She also said that human scale was important – she’d recently visited buildings designed by well-known architects that were so huge they overwhelmed the people who used them.

Carola Stearns voiced concern about cost, saying that she was fiscally conservative and wanted to make sure there were price limitations in place. Yes, use quality materials, she said, but be aware that the Ann Arbor taxpayers who’ll be footing the bill are enduring tough economic times.

Luckenbach said his team would take this feedback and bring back a more concrete design at next month’s board meeting.

A2D2 overview

Wendy Rampson, systems planner for the city of Ann Arbor, gave a presentation about proposed downtown zoning changes, a project known as A2D2. It’s a similar talk and slide show to the one she’s doing at a series of public meetings, and provided both an historical background and overview of recommendations that city council will be considering early next year. (The Chronicle reports in detail here on one of her presentations earlier in the day.)

Ed Surovell and Rebecca Head both told Rampson they thought the proposed guidelines didn’t go far enough in allowing for density, especially in the context of the Ann Arbor greenbelt and other efforts to cluster development in urban areas while maintaining the county’s rural character outside of the city.

Josie Parker asked how these changes would affect the library. Rampson said that development on public land is not constrained by these zoning standards. However, she said she hoped the library would use the zoning as a measuring stick for its future projects.

Prue Rosenthal said she felt the city was being reactive rather than proactive. She said the library board and administration had a clear vision and were showing leadership to reach that vision. “As a private citizen, I’d love to see the city act in a similar manner.” Rampson said that A2D2 is an attempt to do that.

Literacy initiatives

Josie Parker told the board that she has agreed to co-chair the Washtenaw County Literacy Coalition, along with county administrator Bob Guenzel. (Guenzel wrote about the initiative earlier this year as a guest blogger for the online publication Concentrate.) Parker also noted that because board members will be out in the community making the case for why the library needs more space, she wanted to brief them on some of the programs that are driving that need.

Library staff members Terry Soave, Sherlonya Turner and Cecile Dunham spoke about a wide range of programs that deal with different aspects of literacy, from early childhood reading skills to English as a second language tutoring to financial and computer courses for adults.

Turner described several youth services programs. One of their largest annual efforts in the fall is a program to bring all second-grade classes into the library – roughly 1,000 students, brought in a different times. The point is to introduce kids to what the library has to offer. The library makes another outreach effort to fifth graders in the spring, when librarians visit schools to talk about library services.

Programs for teens include a Telenovela writing workshop, bringing kids together to write and produce pieces based on the popular Spanish-language soap opera style; poetry and comedy-writing workshops, where teens perform their work before peers; and one-on-one tutoring.

Soave talked about songwriting workshops for students; a book-sharing program aimed at expectant mothers; health literacy efforts, including a partnership with the Spanish Health Outreach Coalition; ESL and adult basic literacy tutoring and conversation groups; computer classes; tax prep assistance and several other programs.

Finally, Dunham noted that the current economic crisis has heightened the need for programs addressing employment and financial literacy, and she described several efforts in that area. Several workshops are planned for early 2009, including a six-week program that brings in experts on writing resumes and cover letters, career counseling and job interviewing. More information is available on the library’s website.


The board ended its meeting by voting on three items, all unanimously approved: 1) accepting the 2007-08 audit, 2) forming an ad hoc committee – chaired by Margaret Leary, with Carola Stearns and Prue Rosenthal – to work with Josie Parker in developing a communication strategy regarding the downtown library project, and 3) setting an executive session at the Dec. 15 meeting to discuss real estate and legal issues.

Present: Rebecca Head, Margaret Leary, Barbara Murphy, Jan Barney Newman, Josie Parker, Prue Rosenthal, Carola Stearns, Ed Surovell

Next meeting: Monday, Dec. 15, 2008 at 7 p.m. in the library’s fourth floor meeting room, 343 S. Fifth Ave.

Section: Govt., Meeting Watch

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