The Ripple Effect

Ashley M. BiggersDecember 1, 2017
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Phoenix Public Library shuffles services after water damage shutters Burton Barr Central Library.

On the evening of July 15, a monsoon swept through Central Phoenix, where 50 mph winds ripped off Burton Barr Central Library’s roof tiles. It was the first domino in a series of events that left the city’s flagship library shuttered until June 2018. When the roof tiles slammed back into place, they released dust the building’s fire suppression system mistook as smoke. The sprinklers activated, pressing water through corroded and storm-damaged pipes, raining 50-60 gallons of water a minute onto stacks of encyclopedias and sending streams gushing between reference shelves in the five-story building off Central Avenue, south of McDowell Road.

As Phoenix Public Library (PPL) and the City of Phoenix continue to repair or replace the nearly 8,000 materials damaged and the building, the library system has also scurried to farm out the list of programs once hosted by Burton Barr to branch locations. “This is not [just] a library, it’s more like a community center,” said District 7 Councilman Michael Nowakowski the day after the incident.

Burton Barr wasn’t just books and computer banks; it was where high-schoolers applied for college, makers found a creative work space, youth with autism worked their first jobs, and teenagers found healthy meals.

By October, Burton Barr had become a construction site for the anticipated $6 million to $8 million reconstruction, and its programs relocated to one of the 16 other branches or partner community agencies. The only exceptions were the collections of the Arizona Room and the Rare Book Room.

The library’s million visitors a year are trickling into branches. According to PPL community relations manager Lee Franklin, from July to August, the branches saw an average 11 percent increase in door count – people coming in for programs, not necessarily to check out items or use a computer. Libraries closest to Burton Barr, including the Yucca and Century branches, saw greater increases – 16 and 28 percent, respectively.

Some of the central library’s half-million-strong collection is also filtering into branches, as well as computer terminals – Franklin says free Internet is a “significant resource.” Harmon Library has taken up some of the programming slack. Mach, Burton Barr’s maker space, found a home for its hacking, coding and 3-D modeling classes at the Fifth Avenue and Buckeye Road library. Franklin says the closure netted community partners, like the Emmett McLoughlin Community Training & Education Center, which now hosts the free college planning center College Depot.

But the closure sent its current community partners scuttling for new locations. Burton Barr housed the second location of Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center’s Beneficial Beans Café, a pre-employment program for young adults with autism. The café is relocating to CO+HOOTS co-working space, but SARRC marketing and communications manager Karen Scott says it will return to Burton Barr.

St. Mary’s Food Bank Alliance was serving free meals to children five days a week at Burton Barr. These meals were dished out to three locations within a half-mile of the library. Jerry Brown, St. Mary’s director of public relations, says tracking whether customers are being served is difficult. “We were serving 50 kids a day, but it wasn’t the same 50 kids,” he says. St. Mary’s intends to move back. “It’s a good place where parents knew their kids could get meals and enjoy the services of the library,” he says.

“We know with the closure, we’re not able to do all the things in the community we were able to do,” Franklin says. “But with 16 locations, there’s still an opportunity to have a robust experience in library services, have access to materials, and discover your library in a different community.”


1. A ruptured water line in the building’s sprinkler system caused the July flood. The upcoming renovation will include a new roof and fifth-story fire-suppression system.

2. Water cascaded into the fifth-floor reference section, damaging carpet, wood floors, walls/baseboards and about 8,000 books. That area must be entirely rebuilt.  

3. Every floor of the building will get a facelift, including new insulation in the walls and ceiling, new drywall and wall texture, ceiling repairs and new carpet.

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Fixer-Upper; illustration by Angelina Aragon