When I was a kid in Santa Barbara, my mom took me to the Santa Barbara Public Library every other week. It had books jammed everywhere with lots of other kids hanging around. Today’s library has grown beyond my young imagination over the past decades.

Unseen changes have put books in certain sections, opened other sections to work with computers and developed the Children’s Library on the first floor.

The next big change will make the tired and limited usable outdoor area between the library and Santa Barbara Museum of Art into an open, exciting plaza. The 10,000 square feet includes 550 square feet owned by the Museum of Art near its back entrance.

Museum of Art supporters (former trustees and board members) are working together to fund that portion of the Library Plaza. Work will start in October/November and the new community plaza will open next spring.

It will serve Santa Barbara’s large diverse and wide range of readers by expanding thinking, increasing knowledge and deepening community relationships. What a dream to bring our community together by building a badly needed downtown community and making Santa Barbara stronger.

In 1869 a young adult Sarah Plummer moved from the East Coast to Santa Barbara. She realized our community of about 3,000 people had no library. Local readers were mostly priests or wealthier citizens. In those days books were expensive and tended to fall into two categories: written in Spanish or law books.

Plummer opened the first library form in a jewelry store on State Street in March 1871. She had gathered 400 books and named it Lending Library and Stationery Depot, a common name used throughout our county. It added to the Santa Barbara community with fiction, classics and nonfiction, all for the cost of $5 per year or 10 cents per borrowed book.

Over the decades, that little library has become a major part of our city.

Famous philanthropist Andrew Carnegie donated from 1883 and to 1929 to build lasting libraries across the country and support education with free books. He wanted to “help those who helped themselves” and did so through 2,500 libraries with 142 in California.

Carnegie’s $50,000 donation in 1915 helped get our current library on track. It opened in November 1917.

Back in the mid-20th century, the main downtown area was around Anapamu and State streets It went up and down several blocks of State Street filled with local retailers/clerks and restaurants.

Non-local businesses soon took over as Santa Barbara grew beyond its smaller times with only one high school, two junior highs and a few grammar schools. Today there are 21 schools within the Santa Barbara Unified School District.

Next spring, the plaza will help the library and Museum of Art bring the community closer together again in the downtown area — a heartbeat for every age.

COVID-19 has also led people to spend more time outside, something the plaza will make possible.

Lauren Trujillo, director of the Public Library Foundation, had coffee with me. She and other librarians have been working especially hard on this project.

Our discussion began with how appealing the plaza will enrich the Santa Barbara community. It will also maintain low maintenance and keep drought tolerant with a new trench drain, new accessible ramps and walkways, and planter areas. A growing endowment will sustain the space and support expanded activities.

Other wonderful public areas in the downtown area like Alameda Park and the Courthouse lawn provide gathering places but only occasionally. The plaza will be open daily for people to step in on their own, or to support educational and cultural resources for those of every age and backgrounds. All will be drawn into community activities at the plaza.

One problem has been dealing with the homeless. “The plaza is designed to work with the homeless by eliminating hiding lots and making it more open for everyone,” Trujillo said. “Security officers and social workers will work to protect the library area and support the homeless regarding their needs.”

Another advantage is two sizable public parking spaces available on each side of that block of Anapamu Street.

“The plaza will expand the library to reach more of the community center,” Trujillo said. “It will help those needing early literacy, developing careers, improving children’s school work, digital and tech learning, book sharing means and many other parts of life.

“Even programs held in the Faulkner room can be brought outside to a safe space with flexible furniture and open air. Given Santa Barbara’s weather, our community will draw people throughout the year.”

Trujillo also talked about ways to enhance usage. “We’ll work on community activities like book festivals, Earth Day, Summer Festival, Film Festival, and art exhibitions such as integrating the Museums of Art and of Contemporary Art with the library.

“This central hub will draw people in to speak to each other and listen to events. The plaza will soon be friendly, informative and comfortable like a college campus.”

As the plaza increases celebrations, events and learning, it will keep our community alive and active while the character and spirit of Santa Barbara grows. This is a far cry from the public library I knew as a youngster.

Looking back, I realize the plaza will make our community richer, add information galore, and offer many downright fun times.

Noozhawk columnist Susan Miles Gulbransen — a Santa Barbara native, writer and book reviewer — teaches writing at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference and through the Santa Barbara City College Continuing Education Division. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.