Credit Charles W. Hunsberger for those stylish, desert-friendly buildings. As the Las Vegas-Clark County Library District’s visionary director of 21 years (1972-93), Hunsberger is credited with greatly expanding library facilities (and services) across Southern Nevada during the late 1980s and early 1990s. A signpost of Hunsberger’s tenure was the $22.2 million library bond he helped secure in 1985. It resulted in the Green Valley, Las Vegas, Spring Valley, Sunrise and West Las Vegas libraries. It also allowed for the renovation of the Flamingo branch (now called Clark County Library)—a place where I would lose my pre-teen self for hours, studying on the floor among the stacks, browsing LPs of old radio serials and wandering downstairs, past the snack machines to the reading room, where a treasure-trove of international newspapers and magazines were available long before the Internet brought them to our desktops.
More than just build libraries, Hunsberger manifested a movement to create culturally inspiring facilities. He advocated an agenda that cast libraries as hubs of community and culture in a city that had, until then, mostly relied upon UNLV’s arts programming for such things. It is a testament to Hunsberger that the Sahara West Library housed the Las Vegas Art Museum (until 2009), and that Rita Deanin Abbey’s soaring “Spirit Tower” sculpture watches over the Summerlin Library entrance.
Despite these legacies, Hunsberger’s ambitious mission was seen by some vocal locals as pretentious and wasteful. They suggested it was a misuse of public funds to commission an architect to high-design each library from scratch, favoring the use of a singular, elementary design for all branches. The library, from their point of view, was simply a box to house books. Why build such pretty, expensive boxes?
Hunsberger’s rationale—that libraries are a reflection of their community—prevailed, and our community was immediately better for it. But that may not last much longer. Libraries struggle for relevancy in a world where, as my mother says, we carry the Encyclopedia Britannica in our pockets. Henderson district libraries, already closed on Sundays, will now be dark on Mondays, too. Some branches may close altogether unless a November tax initiative passes. Perhaps it’s time to re-imagine libraries (again!). After all, those pretty buildings are a community asset. It would be a shame to see them fall into disuse or demolition.