Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Revitalization, Reading, and Resistance | Renton Libraries, Local Governance, and a Literate Constituency

Hi Colleagues,

Enjoy this pixel-roll of Renton's lovely Library, currently located at Liberty and Cedar River Trail Park:

Homework Comes First
by Martha Pettigrew (above)
Swinging away at Liberty Park (above)

Cedar River Trail in Fall (above 2)
Coast Rhododendron WA State flower blooms in Spring nearby (above)

I have loved the reading life since those Saturday nights at my grandparents reading Little House on the Prairie series and other tales.  After I graduated from college, I loved taking my niece to story time at the Renton Library when she was little. Liberty Park and the Cedar River Trail provided us space to explore, use our imaginations, and gather and play with friends new and old.  The adjacent skate park, basketball and tennis courts, and baseball field provide places for people to play.  

Library History

Historically, the coal industry provided a library, and then in 1913, with a population under 3,000, an aspiring woman applied for funds from the Carnegie Foundation.  The Carnegie funds contributed to Renton's first public library in 1914 (Stewart, 2011, June 2).  As the city grew, the demand for a larger library and a modernized building grew.  While some residents wanted a building location in the downtown core, the City wanted only city-owned property to be considered. In 1966 the Cedar River location opened with the help of the Renton Chamber of Commerce and the League of Women Voters.

Current Tensions

Concerns about cost and perceptions about priority led the City to encourage voters to annex the library to King County in 2008 in spite of independent consultants recommendations to stay independent.  The report used ethnographic techniques such as interviewing members of the public and community.  This transition has since caused tension between residents and civic leaders given residents' frustration over feeling left out of the process and having something locally special sold to a regional governing body.  The unease continued when the council announced plans to build two new library buildings, one of which in the downtown core.  Learn more about the Library decisions.

Steering Committee

The city currently has initiated a 6 month long steering committee to decide the library's locale, though the locale, even with the committee, is somewhat determined as the council voted to move the library.  The steering committee must decide the building's civic use.  In other words, if I understand correctly, the steering committee is to contribute a decision for the locale of the new libraries (1) and what will be the former use of the building at the Liberty Park location (2).

I hear from residents a frustration over feeling that their input, perception of community, and city history is devalued.  I feel an unease, too, over the library decision process as I prefer local control, an involved constituency and a council governed by outreach.  While a steering committee invites residents to participate in future planning, the action may be too little too late, or after the contentious decisions have already been made.  Thus, the steering committee may be perceived as an ineffective and potentially veiled attempt to involve the public, lending the impression that the committee, in all intents and purposes, exists to carry out the predetermined will of the council.  This perception may dissuade people from being involved.  The City must give some assurances that people's contribution in the committee will be valued, even if that means backing up a bit.


Backing up a bit might help.  I hear concerns about cost and a recession, but I also believe that envisioning a bright future requires innovation and participatory leadership styles that empower a constituency to manage the decisions that effect them and to see results that their persuasions are being heard and responded to.  A city must clearly communicate its proposals via due and deliberative process and even delegate decision-making to its constituency.  This process must involve more than an invitation to council hearings or to enforce pre-existing decisions.  Social media can help City and Constituents communicate assuming working people may not have the time to attend on-ground deliberations, while worthwhile, in-person.  

A healthy society, a think therefore I am society, needs resources and infrastructure, whether digital or on-ground, to gather and implement their imaginings.  Public safety infrastructure is important and perceived as a basic need, yes, but what are we protecting if not a picture of life, or a literate and involved and vibrant constituency?  Backing up means that we challenge assumptions via inquiring from our constituency and learn how to apply those findings to our revitalization strategy.

Even with my concerns over the handling of the library decisions, I still believe Renton has something special.  I propose outreach efforts and participative or even delegative leadership from the city (1) while making a steering committee not for the library, but for revitalizing the downtown core (2).  If that's our over-arching effort, then let's focus and involve our constituency with that.  To that end we need to know what revitalizes downtown cores.  What has proven to work in other locales and why?  We need a community profile of Renton; what is our culture, history, and constituency like?  What makes a city thrive?  Answers to these questions can help direct our efforts to make Renton a vibrant and healthy place now and in the future. 

Implications for a Literate Life

A literate constituency is more than one that reads; a literate constituency is one that is mindful of its responsibilities, aware of the political infrastructure, and willing to contribute in a way that engages the collective will via the exercise of one's gifts (see Parker Follett, 1918).  I value our history as a city, and more than that, our history as a city that values literacy.  Yet I also know that infrastructure requires cost, use, and support to run.  I agree with the city's vision to adopt sound growth strategies to revitalize its urban center.  I care deeply about building sustainable, scalable, and healthy societies and view libraries, education, and buzzing downtown cores as part of our democratic public commons.  Why? People gather, interact, and organize in public commons.  Such are the hallmarks of a democracy.  So in a way I see a nutritious library and downtown core as a slice of the free life.

Library Summary

The Libraries, even with recent concerns, remain yet another reason why I Love Renton and Renton is a great place to live, work, and play.  Come help us build and support a public commons and literate constituency in Renton!



Parker Follett, M. (1918). The new state. Danvers, MA: General Books.


Opinions herein are my own and do not necessarily reflect that of my affiliates, partners, or clients.  Links do not necessarily indicate agreement or endorsement of said opinions.  Apply here if you want to participate in the Liberty Park Library Steering Committee.  Learn more about the Steering Committee and the annexation.

Want to keep the library at Liberty Park and Cedar River? Join the grassroots group Citizens for the Preservation of Renton's Cedar River Library.


2012 March 13 | The Citizens for the Preservation of Renton's Cedar River Library submitted 2124 signatures to the city clerk for King County to audit. We now await a certified count to keep the library at its current location. Access my coverage of the library.