Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
Libraries designed to serve both universities and local communities can be a benefit for cities.
When representatives of Virginia Beach Public Library and Tidewater Community College met to discuss building a joint-use library, they set about by listing every single reason why one library would never be big enough for the both of them. Students need quiet and seclusion to study and Tinder. Parents need bright, centralized areas where their kids can go bonkers. The city and college agreed to disagree.
Planners from the city and college didn’t leave it at that, though. Committees considered each conflict in turn until staffers from the city and college felt that there weren’t any outstanding questions left, according to Library Journal. Built for $43 million (with the college picking up 80 percent of the cost), the library features study-focused spaces along its second floor and popular-interest and kid-geared areas on its first floor.
“Joint-use libraries, especially partnerships between public libraries and colleges, are rare but not unheard of,” reads the report. The Tidewater Community College/City of Virginia Beach Joint-Use Library made it onto Library Journal’s list of landmark libraries (as an honorable mention). So did a few other joint-use libraries. The model might be especially useful for making productive use out of town-gown frictions.
Inequality is tricky to measure in college towns. As Ben Casselman explained for FiveThirtyEight last year, the Census Bureau doesn’t consider loans when it estimates student income, for example. So college towns, with their disproportionately high student populations, tend to register as poorer than they actually are. Students, who benefit from forms of income that don’t show up in official accounting, bring down the city’s median income—against which they often look privileged by comparison, thanks to parental support.
In fact, inequality may be better expressed by a lack of access. Especially in the increasingly customer-driven model of American university systems, students have incredible access to amenities and resources that don’t exist at the local level. Other examples of joint-use libraries (from Library Journal’s list of exemplary libraries from the past few years) include a Warrensville Heights, Ohio, public library (which shares the facility with a YMCA) and the San Diego Central Library (which hosts a four-year public high school on site).
All of these joint-use models could serve college towns, especially in small cities such as Prairie View, Texas, where the town-and-gown divide runs more like a fault line. Even in larger cities, planning a joint-use library with a major university might help absorb some of the costs associated with building a major central library or expanding along the spokes of system libraries.