B. Harbor library ready for new age

Published 12:46 pm Friday, April 27, 2012

Fundraising is ready to begin for an update to the Benton Harbor Public Library.

In America, no one is more responsible for establishing the library as a public facility as Andrew Carnegie.

Carnegie felt a need to help educate. In the late 1800s, he began a program to build libraries across the country. Suddenly, cowpoke and financier alike had access to the same bank of knowledge.

As the 21st century dawns, however, libraries face a changing landscape. Books are becoming passé as different media catches on, and the internet has loosened the library’s hold on information and reference materials. Libraries are scrambling to adapt. They are becoming social centers, with game rooms and “noisy” areas.

One library rising to meet these new challenges is the Benton Harbor Public Library in Benton Harbor. Faced with an aging building, behind in building codes and technology, the library has hired architect firm Frye Gillan Molinaro to update the structure.

The Benton Harbor City Council established the Benton Harbor Library in 1899. It moved into a Carnegie-built facility in 1903. The city passed its first tax millage supporting the library in the 1920s, and the city has voted in favor of funding the library ever since. In 1968, the present building opened, at the time, a state-of-the-art facility.

“It’s a good building,” said Fred Kirby, director of the Benton Harbor Public library since 1982. “It has decades of life left in it, but we need a major renovation. The time has come.”

Changes to the outside of the building will include a two-story solarium and several bay windows. A drive-up window will be installed for dropping off materials.

But the biggest changes will take place inside. The existing book collection will shift to moveable archive shelves in the lower level, creating open spaces on the main floors.  Heating, lighting and air-conditioning systems will all be replaced.

“In essence it would be a brand new building on the inside,” Kirby said. “What we hope to do is make our services better. We have a huge demand for public access computers.  We’d like to expand that. We’re hoping to improve our programming to children and young adults. We’re hoping to make the building a more inviting place for people to come.”

As far as its collections go, the Benton Harbor Public Library is varied and unique.

“We have a very good local history collection of the history of Berrien County,” Kirby said. “We’ve got some pretty rare stuff here that very few libraries have. We also have a very good reference collection.”

The Benton Harbor Public Library is also a designated Federal Depository. It received the designation in 1907, and is one of approximately 1,200 others across the nation. Federal Depositories receive and hold everything published by the federal government.

“We receive publications put out by the federal government,” Kirby explained. “There’s a wealth of information there. All the departments in government publish.  The library retains that designation until it surrenders it, or if it fails to maintain the collection properly. We are inspected every five years. It does enhance the prestige of our library. People come from outside our service area to use us.”

As media changes, the collection changes too. The library has worked to amass a solid DVD collection, with movies, how-tos, and other programming.

Plans have been drawn, and the library will soon begin raising the funds to execute them.

Kirby hopes the changes help usher in a better future for the community.

“Benton Harbor is experiencing a true renaissance,” Kirby said. “I have worked in the downtown, at the library, for over 26 years, and I can see the real progress that has been made recently (for example, the arts district just to our north). The library board and I want the library to be a major part of that renaissance. Our planned renovation is the most public aspect of our goal of bringing the library fully into the 21st century.”