What Does it Take to Move 430,000 Books?
Roy Wenzl Gives First Look Into Wichita's Advanced Learning Library
Cynthia Berner, Wichita Library Director, tends to hire nice but obsessive-type people. We should thank her. She and her 134 librarians are about to do us a heroic and, until now, an unsung favor for all of us, one little obsessive-type move at a time -- multiplied by 430,000.
Here’s the big picture: Berner, ten years ago, saw the digital age coming, and it bothered her. And not only because she runs the Wichita Public Library system.
"When the whole digital thing started, I worried that libraries might disappear. Who would need us? So, we changed. We changed a lot," Berner said.
Maybe many of us don’t go to public libraries, where they often give things away for free. Maybe you won’t go to the new Advanced Learning Library, 105,00 square feet of sunlit space wired to the rafters with meeting rooms and Wifi, scheduled to open in June. But behind the scenes, for all of us, there’s a lot at stake here.
Our political leaders talk about moving us safely into the digital age, with our jobs and sanity intact. But Berner and her OCD librarians already moved tens of thousands of us there. She and her 134 librarians, because they reinvented themselves, bind this town together now in impressive ways.
Most crucially, at a time when the worrisome gulf between our haves and have-nots is widening rapidly, regarding wealth, technical and cultural knowledge, Wichita’s librarians now provide free, high-speed internet services to the estimated one in five Wichitans who Berner says can’t afford smart phones, laptops or home Wifi. She’s ramping that up now. The new central branch library under construction is wired for 100 public computers.
A Plan Years in the Making
After the city realized their 50-year-old dead-tree-based central library branch needed replacing, Berner helped plan a new (and exceedingly sunlit) $38 million central branch Advanced Learning Library, set to open next year, across McLean Boulevard from Exploration Place.
For the many years she planned this, she kept hiring those customer-friendly and OCD-type people, the kind of people who, at home, are always nice and helpful to everybody, but insist on how the bath towels need to be folded just so.
When the new building is ready, (in March), Berner plans to truck 430,000 books and other items out of the old branch at 223 S. Main, and reshelve them in perfect OCD order so we can find anything we want within minutes, starting in June. (Or June-ish, as she says).
Partly because of a donation from Cox, the new central branch will have a muscular (and free) Wifi system, and plenty of sunlight space including the expansive outdoor reading section on the new library’s east side, where you can get a suntan along with a dose of Socrates.
For people struggling to stay up with the new world of online banking, online job applications and online health care providers, all this is crucial.
Helping the have-nots also helps the haves, giving them better-informed and skilled workers, easing the burden of government assistance. But, there are serious cultural implications in the old and new things that a modernized library does.
“For example, let’s say you can’t afford HBO or any television streaming service,” Berner said. “And everywhere you go now, you are culturally left out, wondering what everyone is talking so much about concerning Game of Thrones. Well -- you can come in here and borrow the books and the entire TV show.”
(Berner has never watched that HBO show, just FYI. But she hears about it all the time).
A Clean, Well-Lit Space
The inside of the new Advanced Learning Library will be soaked in natural sunlight from thousands of square feet of floor-to-ceiling window views. It’s a stunning thing, with views of downtown and Exploration Place. But that’s not the best of it. Here’s why:
We’re all living in a world rapidly disrupted by economic, workforce and digital changes. Librarians under Berner’s direction adapted, sometimes radically, to help us.
Before she made all these changes, back in the ancient 20th Century, librarians mostly reshelved books and helped customers find what they were looking for. Berner turned librarians into educators and made libraries more attractive and useful.
The new place will have large windows, not only so people can see out but so people can see in. She wants people to see the inside of a library full of people doing many different things. (The downtown YMCA did the same thing with their windows: big, open views of the inside so we can see people working out).
Berner and her staff designed the new place to help everyone keep up in our disruptive world. In doing this, they can help bind our community together in big and unsung ways that don’t get reported in the headlines of local newspapers.
For example, Wichita’s library branches teach classes to thousands of Wichitans every year. There were 2,630 Wichita library programs attended by 66,975 people in 2016; the programs covered everything from how to apply for jobs, how to fill out resumes, how to use smart phones, laptops and tablet devices, and how to not get sucked into financial fraud…
“And how to be adults,” Berner said. “We teach adulting classes now, seriously. Apparently, that’s a thing now, people don’t know how to be adults.”
And because many tech giants, from Steve Jobs to Bill Gates, started saying years ago that our kids need to learn software coding, along with arithmetic and English, the new library will have open sunlit spaces and plenty of computers to teach kids coding.
The Advanced Learning Library, now under construction at 2nd Street and McLean Boulevard, will open in June.
A Cult of Compulsiveness
The planning has taken years. If you’re one of those distractible daydreamers prone to losing your car keys or wallet, imagine Berner plotting how to move 430,000 books and DVDs in perfect order from one place to another. For Berner, moving those tons of items in perfect order from the old dead-tree main branch at 223 S. Main is a little terrifying.
This is where the OCD thing comes in big. “It’s a survival thing with librarians,” she said. There are tens of thousands of details that needed her sign-off in the new place. “Where do all the doorstops go in the new place, for example?” she said. “I had to spend days on doorstops.”
Berner has planned and re-planned many of the details of this move for years. She recalled horror stories she’s heard from other library systems, like the one that ran out of shelves long before they ran out of books to be moved. She’s lost sleep. So has Tammy Penland, her support services manager in charge of furniture and shelving, among other things.
“I wake up in the middle of the night,” Penland said. “I call my own work number, and leave voice mails for myself, about things I’ve thought of in my sleep that we need to do, or to find out, or to check up on.”
Besides accurate reshelving, they’ve tried to give us spaciousness. The old Central Branch is 89,000 square feet, dark and cave-like in places, and poorly designed; less than half of it is accessible to the public.
The Advanced Learning Library will be 105,000 square feet, and patrons can access 75 percent of it. The children’s pavilion alone will include 10,000 square feet of floor space with not only books, computers and toys, but plenty of room to play.
Planning all the details took years of Berner’s life. She serves 142,314 library-card carrying customers. She manages 749,899 books, CDs and other items in all eight library branches. Without planning and obsessive vigilance, any of these items, on any average day, even when the staff is not moving tons of them from an old library to a new one, can get lost in the blink of an eye. In the sacred, unwritten dogmas of librarian culture, mistakes can’t be tolerated.
So, for 17 years now, just to take care of the day-to-day, Berner and her managers interviewed and hired friendly, but picky, people. “People who tend to be a little OCD at home tend to be a good fit here,” as Peland put it. Black and white, she said, not gray. If you admit to Penland, for example, that your mind tends to wander, you likely won't get hired.
However, one thing that won’t change in the new place, Berner said, people will steal books. Check out Berner's list of Most Stolen Books
About Roy Wenzl
Roy Wenzl is an award-winning multimedia journalist. The primary author of Bind, Torture, Kill: The Inside Story of the Serial Killer Next Door (Harper Collins, 2007) and a co-producer of the documentary film The Miracle of Father Kapaun. Recognized nationally, regionally and locally for breaking news, features, business, public service, education and religion writing. His awards include a shared Pulitzer, a National Headliner, two McClatchy Co. President's Awards and two Sigma Delta Chi awards.