I give the place a lot of grief, but never let it be said I don’t give Fort Wayne its due, either. The renovation of the main library, a gut-to-the-studs bump-out, was a major project, the centerpiece of an $80 million bond issue for improvements system-wide. A remonstrance, in which the arguments ran from “that’s too much money” to “splutter taxes splutter eggheads splutter a café?!?” failed, and so construction commenced more than three years ago. The entire main branch was relocated a few blocks down the street for the duration. When it became clear we were leaving Fort Wayne for good sometime in 2004, one of my first thoughts was: I’m not going to see the library completed. Damn.
Eighty million smackers is a lot of money. Noted. However, it won’t even buy a middling stadium anymore, a facility that policymakers everywhere are convinced is a veritable golden goose for any city. But I don’t follow most sports, and step into their arenas only rarely, whereas I’m in a library at least once a week. When my child was younger, it was more often. It helped that the Allen County Public Library was such a rich well of resources, a facility that seemed to belong in a city three times the size of Fort Wayne. And it wasn’t the crown jewels — a top-three-in-the-country genealogical collection, a rare-book room with everything from an unopened copy of Madonna’s “Sex” to a complete set of Edward Sheriff Curtis’ “The North American Indian” folios — that I used. They just kept up with everything, from new fiction to kid-lit to internet resources to music and DVDs. The staff was friendly and sharp. I was grateful for it every time I stepped through the doors.
So. Came the weekend, and one of Kate’s playdates fell through, and we had time on our hands. Where to go? No question.
I only took a few pictures. If you want to see pictures, go to the ACPL’s Flickr page, which documents every nook and cranny. My immediate first impression: They were right to aim high. To call Fort Wayne “fiscally conservative” is laughingly inadequate; Midwestern frugality is the bass note of every discussion of spending tax dollars. There’s a main traffic artery on which you drive with your heart in your mouth, so narrow are the lanes. They are the absolute bare minimum allowed by law, constructed to save a few shekels on concrete and land under the administration of a previous, tight-fisted mayor. To drive on Lake Avenue is to experience a literal manifestation of penny wise and pound foolish — it’ll have to be widened at some point, at a cost that dwarfs what it would have been to just make them wider in the first place — but nobody cares. The editorial pages call the old miser not a bullheaded obstructionist but a necessary voice of fiscal restraint. Whatever.
It would have been easy to do the same thing with the library, to address parking and space issues a little bit at a time, settling for good-enough rather than great. But library administrators didn’t, and the public backed the play, and good for them. They bought themselves not just a wonderful facility but a new focal point for downtown. Example: The plan called for the abandonment of one block of Webster Street, even though the building wasn’t going to grow significantly in that direction. Instead they built a wide plaza at the main entry, an outdoor gathering place suitable for everything from political speechmaking to lolling with a good book. (I’m assuming there’ll be some benches there once the weather turns.)
And that’s apart from the other public spaces within — a theater, meeting rooms, acres of study tables and computer work stations. There’ve been some criticisms that the 21st-century design slights the books, but I think it’s more a question of scale; the spaces are so vast now that the books take up less space than they used to. In any event, the new library eliminated one of the odder traits of the old one — storage. There were two basement levels, and if the catalog said the book you wanted was in storage, you filled out a slip and sent it down on a dumbwaiter. An unseen library troll fetched it for you and sent it back up in a few minutes, which was always amusing. (I always wanted to send down a cupcake or love note or something.)
Now all the books are in the public stacks, and the basement levels are underground parking. You swipe your library card to raise the gate.
When the old library closed, Kate mourned the loss of the children’s department, which was cramped but cozy, a place we both loved. The star attraction was an aquarium featuring a single occupant, which we called Mr. Fish. The new children’s section is vast, with several play areas and, well, a big upgrade in the aquarium department — two semicircles of beautiful saltwater tanks, along with a tubular bubble display that drives the toddlers wild with delight. One of the librarians recognized us, and after marveling over the tall girl at my side who has replaced the little storytime regular, we asked whatever happened to Mr. Fish.
She made a face. “Poisoned,” she said, when a kid poured soap into the old tank. “The new ones are a lot taller,” she said. “I don’t think anyone will be able to reach that high.” Or will want to, I expect. It’s all too beautiful.
Finally, the café, a detail that drove the remonstrators crosseyed. The library is a draw for lots of out-of-towners, mostly amateur genealogists. Downtown Fort Wayne can be a dreary place after dark and in certain seasons, and a place to get a sandwich and coffee without going too far was always these visitors’ No. 1 request; the circulation desk used to give out a photocopied list of all reasonably priced restaurants within walking distance. But a restaurant struck many as the ultimate unnecessary detail, a luxury for the sort of Starbucks-haunting layabouts the new place would be sure to attract. Why, there’s a Taco Bell right across the street; couldn’t they be happy with that?
The café shares a space with Twice Sold Tales, the used bookstore run by the Friends of the Library. I ducked in to see if I could score some cheap hardcovers, and found a few, only to see that the Friends’ cash register was unattended. A sign instructed me to take my purchase to the café register and pay there. I looked over. A line had formed that was nearly to the door, at least a dozen people. The lunch crowd, in other words. I put the books back and left empty-handed but heart-full. I’m so proud of the old place. They aimed high and hit a bullseye.