Opinion: Why Tennessee should spend $89 million on a new library

Opinion: Why Tennessee should spend $89 million on a new library

August 21st, 2015 in Opinion Free Press

An artist's rendering of the proposed new State Library and Archives building in Nashville.

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

Nothing sounds sexier than a state library and archives.

One imagines an 83-year-old great-grandmother checking to see if her ancestor really was mentioned in the Pulaski Journal during the Civil War or a small-town, Matlock-type lawyer researching the minutia for a claim in a civil suit. Cobwebs on the oversized volumes. Crickets chirping from dark corners.

So when the Tennessee State Library and Archives officials in Nashville say they're out of room and need a new building, the clamor has not been deafening to give them what they need.

What they need — indeed, what was designed for them north of the state Capitol next to the Bicentennial Mall nearly 10 years ago — is a building in which they will be able to fulfill their statutory responsibility of storing the informational materials from every bill filed in the state as well as numerous other documents.

"The documents have to be somewhere," Blake Fontenay, communications director for the Tennessee secretary of state told the Times Free Press editorial board recently. "And there's more created every day."

Indeed, if a new building is not built, paperwork for future legislative sessions and future gubernatorial administrations will have to be stored off-site, he said. Digitization of some materials to save space is either statutorily not possible nor practical, officials said.

The problem is the price — $89 million more than the $10-$15 million that's already been spent. That's a steep ask of an administration that directed state agencies last year to prepare to cut their budgets 7.5 percent and asked them earlier this week to prepare for cuts of 3.5 percent.

The new building — the old one attracts some 10,000 visitors a year — was said to be the state's top project in 2008, according to State Librarian and Archivist Charles A. Sherrill, but never got the proper General Assembly support. Then the Great Recession hit, and the project was shelved.

When the administration of Gov. Bill Haslam considered how it would spend nearly $300 million in non-recurring revenue in the 2015-2016 budget, it chose to fund a new Tennessee State Museum, which is currently housed with the Tennessee Performing Arts Center in the James K. Polk building.

Sherrill hopes the next budget will include his new building as part of non-recurring investments, but he's not holding his breath. He and Fontenay realize the project may take some private funds and certainly will require the help of their Friends of the State Library and Archives group.

But, said Fontenay, "inertia is our biggest opponent."

A state library and archives may not be sexy, but a state that demands its papers be saved should make sure it has a proper place to save them.

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