Library needs new home, Union Square needs a library
By Catherine Rogers
With its bloated, water-damaged walls and skinny aisles, the central branch of the Somerville public library is ripe for revamping. In some areas layers of paint have peeled away from the walls revealing a burnt citrus color evocative of 1970s gaudiness.
Currently the building shows signs of repeated floods and burst pipes. Weather damage aside, some book collections remain hidden from the public because there simply isn’t enough shelving space. About two-dozen computers huddle in the center of the main reading room, and a few scattered chairs and tables occupy the small leftover space.
Despite some unaesthetic qualities and cramped quarters, though, over 1,000 patrons come to the library each day to read, listen to music and use the computers. The library has served as a hub of activity since it was built in 1909, but its location on Highland Avenue prevents it from existing symbiotically with surrounding businesses.
That’s where Union Square comes in. As dozens of volunteers at Union Square Main Streets (USMS) develop a plan to revitalize the area, they have discovered an emerging need for a community-oriented facility to contrast with the square’s commercial aspects.
That Union Square needs a critical mass to maintain its viability, a combination of retail shops and services must be made available to support businesses there, said USMS Director Mimi Graney.
“Union Square is not necessarily immune from the vagaries of the economy. It can’t rely on other retail [businesses] to support itself.”
If the library’s main branch were moved to Union Square, she said, it would have a better chance to serve the community at-large. For patrons who run errands in the square, the library would become a destination point in conjunction with other stops such as the post office, the market or a café, she said. As it stands, the library’s location is not conducive to increasing readership.
Graney said she and other Main Streets associates have toyed with the idea of moving the library to the public safety building, which offers a prime spot in Union Square, around 100 parking spaces and 57,000 square feet of space.
According to a recent study conducted by Providence Associates, a consulting firm specializing in building libraries, about 60,000 square feet is needed to fully accommodate shelving, computers, and multifunctional rooms.
Malissa Viera, a senior at Somerville High School, said she goes to the library two or three times a week to do homework. As she sat waiting for a free computer, she considered the possible relocation of the library.
“I probably wouldn’t go there as much because I just live down the street,” she said. “But maybe I would if there was less of a wait for computers.”
Updating the library once sat atop the city’s agenda, but a lack of funding caused it to slide to the background once again. In the 1970s, the library was gutted and many architectural details were removed to maximize available space. Decades later, the city received grant money from the state to renovate the library but had to return the money because it couldn’t fund the difference.
Today the library regularly hosts reading groups for children and adults, craft classes, concerts and other educational workshops.
Executive Director of Communications Thomas Champion said that the library project – which is still just an idea – is driven by capital planning. Providence Associates determined it would be less expensive to build a new library in Union Square than it would be to revamp the old one on Highland Avenue.
With money as the primary factor, Champion, speaking on behalf of the library, still noted the positive presence it could have if it were relocated. “The library is not only a valuable addition to the crossroads that is Union Square, but it’s also a desirable neighbor,” he said, adding, “no library vehicle has a loud siren. There are lots of community assets that are valuable to the area. Some are just quieter than others.”