In Austin’s new library, ‘We’re kind of in awe’

Austin’s new Central Library draws hundreds on its opening day.

A kneeling 9-year-old Kade Hellickson scoured the shelves in a children’s aisle for his latest literary intrigue, the Scholastic monster book series “The Notebook of Doom.”

“Can I go show Anderson?” he excitedly asked his father, James, who was standing by and watching over his daughter Violet’s growing stack of 12 books she’d set aside for checkout.

The South Austin family was just one of hundreds that attended Saturday’s grand opening of the new Central Library at 710 Cesar Chavez St. The building opened to the public for the first time after four years of construction.

“We are amazed. We’re kind of in awe,” said James Hellickson, 53, of South Austin. “Both my kids are kind of entranced in the books. It’s just a lot to be able to see it all. It’s huge. We’re excited that it’s here.”

The library, at nearly 200,000 square feet, is double the size of the former John Henry Faulk Central Library.

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During an opening ceremony Saturday morning, director of Austin Public Libraries Roosevelt Weeks welcomed the first visitors to the library and introduced his vision for the space.

“The library is a brilliant beacon of knowledge, technology and inspiration,” Weeks said. “It’s for you, the people of Austin. It is a space to meet with friends, bring your family (and) connect with the community at large.”

City Council Member Kathie Tovo described the moment of anticipation before entering in terms that bookworms could understand.

“I feel a little bit like Charlie in ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,’ in the moment before he walks through the gates and into the doors of Willy Wonka’s factory and encounters kind of the wonder and the magic of that place,” Tovo said.

Mayor Steve Adler commended the community for passing a $90 million bond in 2006 that funded most of the building construction. The rest was paid for by city property sales and from other sources.

“This community made a commitment to build the best library in the world. Well, you got it,” Adler said. “The only thing that it needs is you. It’s finally time to use this space to create new worlds of your own.”

Adler gushed about several qualities of the building: its technology (laptop vending machines, electronic checkout kiosks and touch-screen interactive games); its energy efficiency (about a third of its power comes from rooftop solar panels); and its “Austin-ness” (shady porches, a bike garage and even a 37-foot grackle pendulum clock).

After a short ribbon-cutting ceremony, the public was allowed to enter and the energy inside the building was electric. Children pingponged about the building, gawking at all of the books and games. Adults lounged with wine in the rooftop garden and looked out over the city skyline and lush nature along Lady Bird Lake.

COMMENTARY: With new library, Austin gets a place of consequence

Peggy Browning of South Austin said she’d been planning her visit since construction began.

“This is a huge improvement,” Browning said, praising the open layout and the large collection of books and activities. “We are going to come a lot more with this location because this is just phenomenal.”

Over on the reading porch, Tiffany Sanders sat on a couch and read a picture book to two little girls, friends of the family. Sanders and her husband John, of Lago Vista, said they had recently visited the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales, a library in Quebec, Canada.

“This is cutting-edge kind of stuff; Austin needs something like this,” John Sanders said. “When we got here … we had to go see this, and it compares very well.”

Their son Hudson, 9, summed up his experience: “It’s not just for older people or littler people. It’s for everybody. It’s big, it has lots of books, and it’s fun.”

The first book checked out, according to the library staff? Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations.”

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