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story.lead_photo.caption The Argenta Branch Library in North Little Rock first faced financial difficulty in 2014, just months after it opened. Mayor Joe Smith said the current pace of debt payment for the branch isn’t feasible but that finding alternative uses for the facility could help save it. ( Arkansas Democrat-Gazette / Thomas Metthe)

Officials are looking to turn the Argenta library into an "urban library" in hopes of saving it from its stark financial reality.

North Little Rock Mayor Joe Smith said earlier this month that one of the city's biggest challenges is figuring out what to do with the Argenta Branch Library downtown.

"The library board can't afford both the Argenta library and the main library," he said.

The Argenta library, which opened in April 2014 at 420 Main St. in a former post office, carries a debt of more than $2.2 million from two bonds that were used to buy the 15,000-square-foot building and convert it into a modern-day library. The library system's annual payment is about $417,000 on that debt, which will last into 2025.

The library averages only five to 15 visitors on Saturdays, and not all of those are there for library purposes, said Crystal Gates, executive director for the William F. Laman Public Library System.

Smith said the debt payment for the branch isn't feasible at the current pace but that finding alternative uses for the building could save the downtown library.

"We are looking into turning it into an urban library, like the one they have in San Antonio," Smith said. "It would offer things beyond books."

Gates said some urban libraries include technology centers, economic development and business development classes, art galleries, studio equipment, tool libraries, cafes and bookstores, among other things.

The mayor said that concept would be a good fit for the city's rapidly redeveloping downtown area.

"It would allow, let's say, an apartment resident to check out a ladder or a drill that they might not normally have," Smith said.

It would also be similar to the Central Arkansas Library System across the Arkansas River in Little Rock. That system has a tool library, art galleries, meeting rooms, laptop checkouts, a telescope-lending program and more.

"We are trying to do things to make the library relevant beyond books," said Nate Coulter, executive director of the Central Arkansas Library System. "We have added a social worker at the library to provide wrap-around support for people who walk in. Under the strategic plan our board adopted last May, we are going to provide more of these community-oriented services at CALS."

The ideas are part of an ever-evolving library practice, said Curtis Rogers, a spokesman for the Urban Libraries Council.

"Libraries are not in the business of books -- they are in the business of people," he said in an email.

The Urban Libraries Council, an organization of North America's leading public library systems, promotes the value of libraries as essential public assets. The council has been guiding conversations about how libraries can take a leadership role in educating people about the social and economic effects of artificial intelligence, Rogers said.

"We have also been working to help libraries understand and strengthen their role as hubs for local entrepreneurs," he said.

Rogers said that in the context of his organization, an "urban library" is any system that serves an urban, developed jurisdiction. He said it could include cities, towns, urban counties and more.

"Every library has a unique culture and provides unique services to meet the needs of its particular community," he said. "In fact, libraries are renowned for their ability to quickly adapt to change."

Coulter said a library's duty to the public goes beyond books.

"We are trying to give people all manners of access to realize their potential," he said. "In the future, I see libraries as the anchor institutions of communities."

The Argenta library's financial situation isn't a new issue. The branch first experienced financial difficulty in late 2014, only months after opening, leading to staff layoffs, a reduction in library hours, and elimination of traveling exhibits and some programs. The city stepped in to help by restructuring the library's debt and extending the payoff dates by two years.

Rogers said building strategic partnerships is key for libraries that are working with small budgets.

"Smaller libraries in urban areas should be reaching out to their local elected officials, school leaders, business leaders, tech leaders, nonprofit leaders, etc., to determine how they can work together more effectively to advance community outcomes," he said.

Gates said the library board will conduct a focus group study soon to determine what the community is looking for in a library, what needs the community has, how the library can meet those needs, and priorities in considering services and resources at the library.

"We will be looking at, speaking with, and possibly visiting urban libraries around the country to learn from their struggles, failures and successes," she said.

Rogers said important steps would include getting out into the community and engaging with residents to learn about how the library can provide the most value to them, taking inventory of local leaders and stakeholders, and learning from the work of other libraries.

Rogers added that even though the evolution of libraries has expanded beyond books, the print format remains important.

"Print books are still the most popular format for reading," Rogers said, "and for many individuals, the library can represent their only access point for books in any format."

Metro on 10/28/2019

Print Headline: Officials look to reinvent downtown North Little Rock library; it 'would offer things beyond books'

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