The Lawrence Public Library's location at 707 Vt. continues to change with the community as it celebrates its 25th anniversary.
Sandra Wiechert remembers her first trip into the Lawrence Public Library almost 25 years ago.
"It was just a huge cavern," said Wiechert, community relations director and reference librarian.
"My vivid memory is that each shelf, all of these endless shelves, had only two or three books on them. There was an echo. I remember thinking that this building would never get filled up."
The shelves, now stocked with the accumulation of 25 years, reflect how things have changed since the building was dedicated Sept. 24, 1972. The current collection of 207,000 items includes books, magazines, videos and CD-ROMs, and the library's collection keeps growing. More than 12 million items have been checked out since the building opened.
"The public library is a very American institution," said Bruce Flanders, director of the Lawrence Public Library. "An informed citizenry is one that makes good decisions in its civic life.
"We see the public library as very much supportive of the overall democratic process, of an individual's desire to better themselves and as a place of discovery and learning."
It was the democratic process that made the current library, 707 Vt., a reality when a $1.575 million bond issue passed 3,056 to 2,365 on March 3, 1970.
Room to grow
Since 1904, Lawrence's library had been in the Carnegie Building at 200 W. Ninth, now home to the Lawrence Arts Center. There was no argument that it was a beautiful historic building, but Lawrence had changed in the 68 years since Andrew Carnegie's Foundation provided the $27,500 to build the library.
Flanders, who stocked shelves in the Carnegie building from 1969 until the move to the current library, worked at the new building until 1977. He returned in 1995, after working as a state librarian in the Kansas Statehouse.
The Carnegie building had some problems that were hard on the books.
"I remember using a wet-vac," he said. "Any kind of rains ... would leave literally 2 or 3 inches of water on the floor."
Storage was also a problem, and 4,000 to 6,000 books were boxed and left at the city's water plant because there was no room on the shelves. The old library, Flanders said, was bursting at the seams.
"You have to realize, I am a historian, so that flavored a lot of my earlier opinions about the library," Wiechert said. "I liked things just the way they were, but the need was very obvious."
Wayne Mayo, whose 31-year tenure as library director began in 1963, was dedicated to bringing a modern, spacious library to Lawrence. Flanders has copies of a scrapbook Mayo kept, filled with a chronological account of the Carnegie building's woes and the successful bond issue.
Mayo died in 1994.
"He was a great influence in making the library what it is now," said Harriet Wilson, who was one of the founding members of the Friends of the Lawrence Public Library 25 years ago, along with her husband, Paul.
"Of course, that was before the electronic computer age, but I know he was a dedicated person and very knowledgeable," Harriet Wilson said.
When the building was dedicated, then-Mayor John Emick called the library a "milestone in the history of Lawrence" that would make the city "the envy of the entire state and Midwest."
Videos and CD-ROMs?
The building may have been the focus of attention at the dedication, but the books remained the heart of the library. Times have changed, and Mayo was determined to make the library's collection change to meet new technologies, including bringing videos and CD-ROMs into the picture.
Flanders has continued the push to keep up with changing times, bringing a computerized online catalog system into use in May 1996. In May of this year, the old card catalogs were removed, bringing both criticism and praise.
"With the online system vs. the card catalog, you have the ability to do keyword searching. You don't have to know the exact name of the book or author, and you can find what you want," Flanders said. "There will always be some people who are hesitant to use it, though."
An informal survey taken before the card catalog was retired showed that 90 percent of those people asked preferred to use the online system exclusively or in connection with the old card catalog system, Flanders said.
Wiechert said few complaints have been received. Classes are available to groups wanting to learn how to use the new online system. For the most part, many library patrons were willing to embrace the new technology.
"It's kind of interesting to see the reaction to the card catalog we had. Children would come into the library last year and were puzzled by this odd thing called a card catalog," Flanders said. "We have a generation now that has grown up never seeing a card catalog."
In 1995, the library provided public access to the Internet, and extra work stations and software upgrades will allow faster downloading times for patrons.
Flanders knows the importance of providing access to information -- the library's main role -- but the book still reigns at the Lawrence Public Library.
"One thing we don't want to lose sight of is our central role of providing access to books," he said. "No matter how many electronic resources we acquire, no matter how many CD-ROMs or music CDs we circulate, the book is still key and always will be."
Expanding with Lawrence
Just as the number of books on the library's shelves has skyrocketed, so has the city's population. Flanders said his job is not only keeping the library stocked with the newest releases, but making sure the library continues to serve all of Lawrence. With expansion on the city's west and south sides, he's not so sure the library is meeting that goal.
"Just as the old Carnegie library was inadequate to meet the information and reading needs of the community, our existing facility is inadequate today," he said. "We need to take a proactive role in getting out into the community and taking library materials to various parts of Lawrence because it's growing at such a tremendous rate."
Expansion at the current facility is out of the question. Not only is the building landlocked, Flanders said, but expanding there still wouldn't make it easier for people on the western edge of the city to use the library. Lawrence Bookmobile services have been expanded from eight weeks in the summer to nine months throughout the year, but more changes are imminent.
"Lawrence is approaching the day when we need to look at whether or not we wish to extend Bookmobile services beyond what we currently do to provide the outreach we need, or whether or not we need to look at constructing, or more likely, renting or leasing space to provide a branch library in one or more locations," he said.
The library board is studying long-range plans and the projected growth of Lawrence.
"It's not too early to begin looking at that branch concept or extended Bookmobile service right now," Flanders said.
As the library enters its second 25 years, its staff is helping the community reflect on the past 25 years. Flanders said the library, complete with its auditorium and gallery meeting room, has seen hundreds of meetings and other functions. There have been weddings, baby showers, memorial services and readings.
Ninety percent of the library's $1.3 million budget comes from city taxpayers. The rest comes from the Northeast Kansas Library System, overdue fines, grants, private donations and the state of Kansas.
"The library is a meeting place for the community," Flanders said. "It's like a commons area where everyone can get together. Our meeting rooms are almost totally booked up. It's very difficult to find an evening when they're not in use."