On Saturday, August 24, 2013, more than five years after ten square miles of our downtown was consumed by flood waters, the city of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, once again embraced a public library in the heart of the community. As the community relations manager for the library I have been asked more times than I can remember what I was most excited about in terms of the new library. And as the day of grand opening inched closer, the question was more frequent and, in all honesty, more emotional.
Our community was devastated following the floods in 2008. In no way was the library alone in its devastation. It is difficult to meet anyone in this city of 125,000 residents who wasn’t impacted by the disaster. Most of us knew someone who lost their home, or worked in a building that was flooded. When I think of all that was lost during the flood, it’s heartbreaking, and it’s difficult to find a place whose loss could be felt so directly to so many people in the community than the public library. The public library, the most free of all institutions, belongs to everyone and welcomes all. The loss of the library was felt by those who worked there, but also by each and every child who didn’t get to come to story time; by every parent who couldn’t get books to help prepare their child for school; and every student who couldn’t access a computer or librarian to help with homework. It was felt by every job seeker who needed help writing a resume, every entrepreneur trying to connect with the world. It was felt by every senior citizen looking for entertainment on a fixed income, and every community group looking for a place to meet.
The doors opened for the first time following a special community ribbon cutting ceremony. We invited residents to take one of 1000 pairs of children’s scissors and find a place around the 95,000 square foot building, the entirety of which will wsa wrapped in a red ribbon for the occasion, held in place by an army of volunteers. Upon the ringing of the bells, each of the 1000 pairs of scissors cut the ribbon and welcomed the community into the library for the first time.
Five years ago, when the waters receded and it became clear that the library was a total loss, the community rallied around us. These same people would go without a library, or cope with a makeshift temporary space in a rundown mall, and poured their heart and hard-earned dollars into the future of the city’s public library. In a town of 125,000 people, our community raised more than $7 million in private dollars for the new library. Without seeing a design, without even knowing where exactly this new library would be built, the community stepped up and gave because they believed in the value of the public library. The details of what a library looks like or even what composes its collection mattered less than the inherent value of this uniquely public space.
I have to remind myself that this is what we must remember, this lesson of library love. We must remember this in the moments when we struggle to explain our value to our customers, and we have to answer for the umpteenth time how libraries are changing thanks to the digital marketplace. Or we are face to face with someone who says “Who uses libraries anymore? Can’t we just get everything online?”
So what am I most excited about in terms of our new library? I am excited to see our staff finally have a home after more than five years in temporary quarters. I am excited to have a new collection – a BRAND new collection – of nearly a quarter of a million items. I am excited to hold the first program in our new auditorium and host the first story time in our new 14,000 square foot children’s library.
But most of all, when the doors opened for the first time on August 24 and the community experienced the library that they built because they believe in what we do, well, that was the most exciting thing of all. See pix of our beautiful new library below!