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Commentary: New library ready for Digital Age

December 10, 2007

Dec. 9 was slated to be the Big Day for Indianapolis' new Central Library.

After five years and more than $150 million, the project-which seemed preposterous from the start-has finally come to fruition and sits ready for a grand opening.

From the beginning, I wondered how you even move an entire library. What's more, how do you set it up in a new location, then tear it down and move it back?

Imagine moving hundreds of thousands of books, magazines and recordings. It's somewhat mind-boggling. Does the Dewey Decimal System survive such a thing?

Then there was the design of the expansion-a modern, shiny, steel-and-glass addition stuck on to the back end of a stately, traditional limestone and marble beauty. As construction progressed, I thought it was one of the ugliest things I'd ever seen.

And finally, there were construction woes, delays and overruns that dragged the project out two years longer than scheduled and $50 million over budget-yielding litigation that has yet to be settled.

And what about the overriding question: Why spend that kind of money, time and resources on a library in the age of the Internet, when people can find just about any kind of information they need with a couple of clicks of a mouse?

But here we are, finally ready for the grand unveiling, with the library board still left to wrestle with the legal proceedings that may help it salvage some of the extra money it was forced to spend to complete the project.

Although I'm still having trouble with the exterior design, it's growing on me. From certain angles, it's actually starting to look pretty good.

In particular, the north view from the south end of the American Legion Mall is impressive; the gleaming, curved expansion somehow nestles in nicely around the back of the original building.

The inside, based on all the previews I've seen, appears to be a home run ... a grand slam, even.

Designers have gone to great pains to create a modern, user-friendly environment conducive to sticking around inside, kind of like a nice Borders or Barnes & Noble. They have succeeded.

Brand-new furniture and cool lighting, attention to details large and small, sensible pathways implementing escalators and ramps, a café serving Seattle's Best-it all adds up.

The atrium is stunning, and all the glass, of course, welcomes an abundance of natural light. Perhaps the nicest amenity, however, is the inside-out view southward to downtown from the sixth floor, especially at night. It's a killer.

And finally, the refurbished bronze sculpture "Arts, Sciences and Letters"-a surprise atop the somewhat secluded East Ninth Street entrance-lends a certain gravitas to the library's new "back door." I like that.

All in all, we are left with a modern-day library with all the technology, resources, convenience and design that give it every chance to succeed in the Digital Age.

Library experts say new downtown libraries like ours built recently in cities like Denver, Seattle and Salt Lake City have produced significant increases in usage and traffic and have sparked development in their immediate vicinities.

If you believe that, as supporters and library board members do, and that a library represents the intellectual and cultural core of a city, you should be very, very happy with the finished product.

If you also believe, as supporters and library board members do, that the new library is a much-needed complement to the gleaming office buildings and sprawling sports facilities invested in by this community, again, you should be happy.

If you believe all this, you should be happy even if you don't particularly like the way the building looks from the outside.

I think I'm happy.



Katterjohn is publisher of IBJ. To comment on this column, send e-mail to ckatterjohn@ibj.com.
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