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Arlington's Central Library Finds Temporary Home In An Old Water Utility Building

Gus Contreras

The city of Arlington tore down its main library a couple of years ago. Officials said the Central Library was too outdated. There are several library branches still open. But, for now, the main library has had to seriously downsize.

Want to borrow a book from Arlington’s Central Library? Head down Cooper Street and go past the Jack-In-The-Box. You'll see an old water utility building a makeshift sign that says Central Library Express.

Norma Zuniga, operations and facilities administrator, helped pick out these temporary quarters. It took some imagination to transform it.

“With a little paint, with a little work here and there, let's tear down this wall,” is how she describes the process. “There used to be a kitchen right out here actually.”

This library’s much smaller; there’s only enough room for new books and a few computers.

The main collection is stored at a nearby warehouse. Want a book? If it’s not here, you’ll have to wait two to three days.

“We wanted some place patrons could come get what they needed,” Zuniga says. “Have computer access, which is in big demand in this part of town. ... And so here we are.”

A small staff squeezes into this space. They have to share room with all the incoming books they catalogue. 

“You can see we have to use every ounce of space here," said Abby Dozier, the library services manager.

"This is one of those places you can definitely feel the size difference,” she says on a walking tour of the library.

Dozier’s seeing the difference in patrons, too. The biggest obstacle is letting people know the library’s there.

Still, she says, the two-year wait for a new building will be worth it.

“A modern library is not what people would think of in the traditional sense,” Dozier says. “We're books, but we are so much more. We're technology, we are programming, we are outreach, we are adult education. There are so many things that we do that I think a lot of people aren't aware that libraries and librarians can provide.”

The new building will cost $29 million and cover 80,000 square feet. It will include 18 meeting rooms, a 3D printing station, a genealogy and local history room, along with a plaza and rooftop garden.

That’s glamorous compared to the old George W. Hawkes Central Library. It was built in 1973, when Arlington was a small suburb of 90,000. It had just one common room, some other meeting rooms, books and over time put in computer space.

Ask library employees about the old building and they’ll be honest: There wasn’t enough space and the plumbing was bad.

“It was not built for today's technology,” Dozier says.

She says that made it easier to leave.

“We had so many things that needed to be fixed, it was more cost effective to build a new library that would be made for today's needs,” Dozier says. “The way Arlington is growing, the old building was not structurally supporting our needs for the future.”

The Hawkes library was torn down two years ago. Housing, restaurant and retail development is currently being built there. The new library will be near City Hall.

Arlington’s using $22 million in tax dollars, and $4 million more from the Arlington Tomorrow Foundation to pay for it.

Zuniga says the city’s asking for another $3 million in donations to help furnish it.

“For us to be able to move from the Central Library, to a temporary location, to the new facility, it really embraces moving forward,” she says. “That's what libraries are all about, moving forward and empowering its community.”

At the temporary library, Florazell Hyder crowds in with her 3-year-old son, Carlyle. He’s in the process of learning his ABC’s.

“My mom said I better start bringing him to the library," she says. "He just got in pre-K, so we’re trying to teach him more. The more you read, the more you learn.”

In about two years, all those books will have to move again. Only this time, they’ll be home.