Onondaga County Public Library looks for help for downtown Syracuse location

Oct 5, 2011

22 years ago, in a shiny new mall in downtown Syracuse, the central library set up housekeeping.  But where department stores and food courts once enticed visitors, now offices and specialty shops hang their shingles and dramatic changes have also taken place in the library

 “When this library opened, there were 30 librarians,” said Elizabeth Daily, Executive Director of the Onondaga County Public Library System. “They spent time doing things like filing cards.  Now we have 17 librarians.  The work that takes up their time is totally different."

Daily says these changes reflect the explosion of new technology, as well as an era where dwindling government funds mean fewer dollars for things like libraries.

Doreen Milcarek is Central Library Administrator and says 10-percent of the workforce has been laid off in recent years and certain programs have been curtailed because there is no one to staff them in the sprawling 121 thousand square foot facility.

 So the changes that are being considered by Onondaga County would condense much of the library and allow for better programming at the facility that doesn't need the same kind of space it had two decades ago.

“We don't need that much space for print material anymore,” said Milcarek. “As far as how much, that's yet to be determined.  But we know we will have less print material."

So what to do with what could be called a dinosaur of a library that occupies five floors and a basement of the galleries of Syracuse?

"You would walk in and have 30-thousand square feet spread out right in front of you that would be your library,” said Daily. “It would have children's separated in one area, it would have public access computers.  It would have the look of our current browse about, where you could find the books and materials that you need.  And, if the architects go along, it would be open to the second floor and on the second floor you would have your local history and services to people with disabilities.”

While things spread out on the first two floors, Onondaga County, which owns the library, would either rent or sell the 3rd and 4th floors, bringing the total square footage down to 90,000 square feet.

Doreen Milcarek says the library still needs space, because of its role as the central library.

"We also are the system headquarters for delivery,” said Milcarek. “So all the materials that go from Tully to Brewerton Library, for the convenience for the patron to pick up there, they come through this library, they're sorted, so there's a lot of behind the scenes operation that goes on here.”

The other thing the library will emphasize is public space for meetings and clubs.

“This is a trend that we have seen in libraries all across the country,” said Daily. “People do spend time at work or at home on their own computer.  It's kind of an isolating thing.  So they crave this interaction.”

The other thing that would be different is that instead of being accessed from inside the galleries, which librarians admit was confusing, you'd see it from Salina St. That kind of plays into the changing emphasis of downtown to a have a more residential feel.

"We see our redesign of the central library as playing into that with a Salina St. level presence," said Milcarek.

All this change would cost $7.7 million. Onondaga County Executive Joanie Mahoney is proposing that the county borrow $5.2 million and get the rest from a state grant. It is part of the budget proposal that lawmakers will vote on next week. Milcarek believes it’s something that needs to happen.

"It was a cutting edge library at the time it was built, but library needs, patrons needs have changed," said Milcarek.