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Wednesday, March 4, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 11.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
The Daily
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Renovated Madison Central Library will have expanded mission
Art, music, movies will be part of new facility
Mickells pushed for a new policy allowing food and drink in the library.
Mickells pushed for a new policy allowing food and drink in the library.
Credit:Joe Tarr

For Trent Miller, the tricky part is coming up with a catchy name.

Miller, who is program coordinator at the Madison Public Library, is about to have a world of possibilities open up. Madison's Central Library will reopen in September, and Miller and other library staff have grand plans to use the space in some nontraditional ways.

Miller is busy planning several regular events, including a monthly Friday evening event for adults that will feature bands, artists and possibly alcoholic beverages.

But, Miller confesses, he doesn't yet have a snappy name for the series. "We need something clever and possibly book related," he says.

The library proved it could put on dynamic events when it closed for renovation and expansion in January 2012. The library threw a party called "Bookless" (so named because all the books had been removed) and invited DJs, bands and artists to make use of the space. Patrons could buy wine and beer and get a little crazy without having librarians shush them. The event was wildly successful.

Staff will kick off the library's reopening with a similar event, this one called "Stacked," on Sept. 19. The facility officially opens two days later.

"Stacked" will be a little more restrained than Bookless, since the books are back, the facility will be new, and artists won't be able to go wild. "We won't be able to drill wherever we feel like," says Courtney Davis, who works for the Madison Library Foundation.

But Miller hopes "Stacked" will get people excited about the new facility. "We hope to attract some people who maybe traditionally wouldn't be coming to a library," says Miller, who is also organizing the library's Bubbler (see "The Bubbler, a New Madison Public Library Program, Finds Innovative Ways to Connect Creative Types," 4/11/2013). "Once people get in the building, it's such a huge upgrade. I really want to have this cooler series of things going on, always, so people see it as a go-to spot."

The library renovation was never supposed to happen. Madison officials had their hearts set on a whole new building and almost got their wish.

After a competitive bid process, the Common Council accepted a proposal by Fiore Companies to construct a grand $37 million, six-story library in the 200 block of West Washington Avenue. The project was going to be part of a larger redevelopment of the block. But the city failed to reach a deal with Fiore over the project. Then-Mayor Dave Cieslewicz regrouped and moved ahead with less expensive plans to renovate and expand the existing building.

Ald. Larry Palm, who sits on the Madison Public Library Board, says he's thrilled with how the project has turned out. "I love it," he says. "There were a lot of people who said, 'Tear it down.' But it shows you how good, sturdy buildings have a lot of life in them."

Palm says a new six-story building would have been a lot more complicated for the staff to manage. And the current building is in a better location.

The renovation has also been much cheaper. The budget for the project - including an 8% contingency for unexpected costs - was $19,320,000, says Michael Dailey, assistant city engineer. There have so far been 112 change orders, eating up about half of the contingency.

The private fundraising for the project has gone well, says Jennifer Collins, executive director of the Madison Public Library Foundation. The foundation has raised about 82% of its $9 million goal for the project - a little more than $7.3 million.

"This is definitely the hardest part of a capital campaign," she says. "You get more gifts, but they tend to be smaller. On the other hand, people get excited as they see the progress on the building."

A tour of the building last week showed the space greatly transformed. The space is much brighter, with large windows along Henry and Mifflin streets, bringing in natural light, even down to the basement. Many areas that were formerly off limits to the public have been opened up. The basement area will be a large children's room, with some unique features, like cushion-lined cubby holes carved into the concrete walls that kids can crawl into and read. Quiet study rooms are sprinkled throughout the library.

The heating and cooling systems have been installed in the floors. The building will have at least silver-LEED energy efficient certification, but possibly gold, Collins says.

The building will have two entrances and two checkout desks: one at the corner of Mifflin and Fairchild, and a new one on Mifflin closer to Henry. Bookshelves are already being installed because they include motion-sensitive lights that have to be wired into the floors. But books won't arrive until this summer.

The new library will have a notable policy change, advocated by library director Greg Mickells: Food and drink will be permitted within its walls.

Mickells says that many public libraries now allow food and drink. "Initially, there's always a reservation from staff that drinks will get spilled and books destroyed," he says. "But it just doesn't happen."

The section of the library that people are especially excited about is the new third floor. It won't have much in the way of books, but there will be an art gallery, a community room and a small outdoor terrace. (While the roof will be green and include plantings, only a small outside section will be open to the public.)

"It's the nicest space in the building," Miller says of the third floor. "I think people are going to go up there and read, work on the laptop, look at artwork."

It will also be the location for many of the events Miller plans to stage. In addition to his monthly adult events, usually on first Fridays, there will be three monthly film series. First Thursdays will feature classic and contemporary films; second Thursdays community cinema; and third Thursdays "bad movies."

As it looks at new ways to use the library and draw people into the building, staff are interested in getting a liquor license.

The idea has a precedent in Madison, when the Goodman Community Center applied for a liquor license last year. Mayor Paul Soglin vetoed the idea, but the Common Council overrode him.

Palm supports the concept and notes that alcohol has been provided already at some foundation events.

"I foresee the library as a very hot place for weddings and the like. Why not [have alcohol]? It's a great community space," Palm says. "I do think we need to have policies and procedures. I don't want pizza parties with beer. But a wedding, that's appropriate. This is Wisconsin."

Mickells says there have already been three inquiries about hosting weddings there. And he notes drinking on the premises will be limited.

"Liquor at the library is going to be more the exception than the rule."

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