Comnentary: Let imagination soar when planning our new library

El Cerrito New Library Committee member Tom Panas made the following comments at the City Council’s meeting this week.

A Contra Costa County library strategic planning process town hall meeting will be held in El Cerrito to gather input for the new strategic plan. This session will be held here in the Council Chambers twenty days from today, on Sept 9. It’s best to signup in advance, either via the link on the front page of the City web site or by calling the library. But no one will be turned away.

The recent survey of the City indicated widespread support for a new library. But it would be a grievous mistake to just build a modern new library. As Tina Selig wrote in her recent book about innovation, “the biggest failures of our lives are not failures of execution, they are failures of imagination.” I’m not talking about building a big extravagant library. I’m talking about creating a unique place that caters to the diversity of our community in a fiscally sound manner. How do we get there? By investing a lot of time and energy up front; I am willing to do so and I trust others are as well.

We have a mind-numbing number of choices to consider. Let’s ponder a few of the thousands:

  • Census statistics tell us that we have a very large Asian community. Why shouldn’t we be the home for a County Library Asian collection?
  • Those same statistics tell us we have the highest percentage of single-sex couples in the county. Why shouldn’t we be the home for a County Library LGBT collection?
  • We have many people in town with whom Google would like a more robust relationship. Are we going to ask Google to wire our City with fiber and help with the library?
  • We have many sites from which to pick; for example will we evaluate building a library at Plaza BART, renaming the station Plaza/Library, and repainting the station to look like a row of books?
  • We have a town very interested in the arts; shouldn’t our new library include a modest space for literary events? Will non-library services be delivered out of this building?

I’m not afraid discuss these questions with the relevant parties and I’m not afraid to fail. But let’s consider the source: these ideas came from an old, dull engineer. In El Cerrito we can do a whole lot better. Tim Hurston talks about the “3rd third.” He tells us if you want something brilliant you should throw out your first wave of ideas because they are too obvious, shopworn and stale; they’re not at all brilliant. Once you get over the loss of the first round of ideas then generate a second wave; they will be better and more inventive. But the third wave of ideas will be the keepers.

If we want to create something bigger than ourselves we have to be willing to be uncomfortable and to entertain new ideas and fringe thinking. An amazing vision will arise if we nurture it. Justin Brady wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “real creativity is messy, chaotic, sometimes even disgusting, and it reeks of failure, experimentation, and disorganization.” Chaos, failure, and disorganization are not hallmarks of our City Manager and Assistant City Manager. Not that I note my esteemed Council members frequently venturing into these domains. But if we aren’t willing to stick out our necks, be truly creative, and embrace failure as a way to a higher goal; if we aren’t willing to do the hard work to learn from and convince every person and organization in town that this is their library, then we are going to end up with a library that might be pretty but is a failure.

Let’s break the bonds of conventional thinking and library planning. What kind of a future do we want in El Cerrito? As Alvin Keyes wrote, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”

Thank you for your time this evening.

We help bring people and IDEAS together