Any future use of Lawrence's former public library should honor the building's tradition of public involvement and learning.
As the Lawrence City Commission considers the future of the former Carnegie Library building, it should give priority to the same kind of broad public uses the structure has served throughout its history.
The original building was a gift to the city from the Carnegie Foundation, which financed public libraries across the nation. During the 75 years it served as the Lawrence Public Library, the building attracted thousands of local residents over several generations. It was a place where people of all ages, all ethnic and social backgrounds and any income level could come to read and to learn.
The building experienced the same kind of open-door policy during the next 25 years when it served as the Lawrence Arts Center. Its downtown location and the active support of donors made it possible for the arts center to offer opportunities to a large cross-section of the community.
Now, as the building moves into its second century, major renovations are needed. The city has set aside $500,000 for rehabilitation work, but for what use will it be restored?
Several local groups have offered thoughtful suggestions. One group that has studied possible uses is advocating a center for literacy and lifelong learning that would honor poet Langston Hughes who spent much of his boyhood in Lawrence and recalled his own frequent visits to the Lawrence Public Library.
A representative of the group said it had focused on the principle that "Carnegie gave this as a gift to the people of Lawrence." They are right to keep the building's public mission at the forefront of their discussions.
A number of other possible uses also have been suggested for the building. It would be ideal for some use that would focus on Lawrence's rich history. It was eyed, for example, when Sen. Sam Brownback raised the possibility of locating an abolitionist museum somewhere in the state. Perhaps those seeking National Heritage Area status for Lawrence and its surrounding area would have some suggestions.
Tonight, Lawrence city commissioners will consider the possible short-term use of the building as an overnight shelter for homeless people who cannot be admitted to the Salvation Army because of drug or alcohol use. The compassion of the group promoting this option is laudable, but the Carnegie building and the homeless shelter don't seem a good match even in the short term.
This building is a gem of downtown Lawrence. It has served the public well over the last 100 years as a library and arts center. The idea that honors Langston Hughes involves a public use, but there may be even better ideas out there. Other plans that involve public learning and public participation should be solicited and considered. Preserving the building as a place where everyone is welcome to gather and learn would be a fitting tribute to the former library's roots.