Bob Thomas of Vines Architecture with a 3-D model of a proposed library design
Photo by Lisa Sorg
The last time fresh air reached the upper floors of the Main Branch of the Durham Public Library, Ronald Reagan was president. That’s just a guess, of course, but the air feels like 1982 — oppressive and stuffy, and possibly wearing shoulder pads.
This spring, the Durham County Commissioners are expected to vote on whether to place a bond referendum on the November ballot, which, if passed, would help pay for the estimated $40 million in renovations to the downtown main branch.
Earlier this year, I read Part of Our Lives: A People’s History of the American Public Library by Wayne Wiegand. (Ironically, I had to buy it because of the long wait list for the book at all of the Durham library branches.) It’s a wonderful read, if redundant in parts, that explains the importance of the public library in civic and social life.
“Libraries had broader communal functions, including providing space for the emotional experience of community,” the book reads, “enabling discussion groups and at the same time cultivating a sense of freedom, status and social privilege.”
That is why this investment is not only about upfitting a building. It’s about how a historically democratic (with a small d) community space figures in the overall scheme of a revived and largely privatized central business district. Libraries are one of the last non-commercial spaces, where people mingle, regardless of race of class.
It’s also about how the this four acres could help transform downtown. It could connect Cleveland-Holloway with the center city; spark the transformation of the Downtown Loop from one way to two; enhance both the residential and commercial development of downtown’s east side.
Indeed, libraries are the great equalizers.
To that end, Vines Architecture in Raleigh is redesigning the 65,000-square-foot building from scratch. When it’s finished, the new library will be 30 percent larger, 84,000 square feet, a lot of it glass.
“We’re stripping away everything, not just physically” but conceptually, as library officials re-envision the building’s purpose and function in the 21st century, said Victor Vines, the firms’ founding principal at a public meeting last month. “We don’t see the building being bashful.”
You’d be shy, too, if you were an architectural anachronism. Like suburban homes, the library has two front doors — the real one, facing Roxboro Street, which few people use — and another off the parking lot, out back, which functions as the de facto main entrance.
Inside, parts of the library darker than a man cave, with few windows and little natural light. It’s hard to determine which floor is which. (More than once, I’ve mused to myself, “Wasn’t I just in nonfiction?”)
The current building was constructed in 1980, when libraries were considered “introverted repositories of books,” said Bob Thomas, Vines Architecture director of design.
However, the personality of the new library, with glass, open space and connectivity between floors and the indoors and outdoors, will be “outward,” Thomas said. “There will be connectivity with the city and transparency within and from the library,” he added.
With Cleveland-Holloway neighborhood, city and county services, the thriving Central Business District and the American Tobacco Campus all nearby, “There couldn’t be a better site for an urban public library,” Thomas said. “The library falls at the seam of all of those.”
The improvements include additional private study and community meeting rooms, an amphitheater, a business incubator, maker space to foster creativity and areas known as STEAM —science, technology, engineering, arts and math education — for both kids and adults. The new building will embody what library director Tammy Baggett said is “a place to learn, share, create and discover.”
According to schematics presented at two recent public meetings, a single entrance would be relocated to the corner of Liberty and Roxboro streets. (And if the Loop becomes two-way, perhaps patrons could cross the street without fear of dismemberment.)
The number of parking spaces will remain roughly the same. However, the lot will move closer to the building, and with green space and a community garden, become integrated with the library. The building will also be LEED certified for energy-efficiency, using natural light and possibly solar hot water.
Inside, visitors could be greeted by a Friends of the Library store, a cafe and a bank of computers. Upper floors would be flooded with natural light; the roof could even include a terrace or small garden.
“We want to physically express the ideas of discovery, community and literacy,” said Vines senior architect Jeff Schroeder. “We want this to be a place where people want to hang out, to be.”
Earlier this month, a girl of about 4 had become separated from her mother at the library, and despite several public announcements over the intercom, the mother had not been found.
A woman intervened to comfort the girl until she could be found.
“Do you like books about dogs?” the woman asked.
“Yes,” the girl replied.
So the two sat together at a table and read for a few minutes about dogs, and then flowers, and just as the woman was running out of books, mother and daughter were reunited.
This brief scene symbolizes what’s inspiring about a public library. For the most part, people help one another. Coalesced around a common space and goal — learning, reading, passing time — the barriers seem to fall.
(Case in point: Some library patrons, including those from nearby Urban Ministries, are the homeless. They will need another place to frequent during the day for the two years, 2017–2019, while the library is closed.)
This sense of community and activities are what brings people to the library. Despite the dank environs, the downtown branch had more than 2.4 million visits last year, with a circulation of 3 million items, according library figures. From 2003-14, attendance for programs, such as hands-on technology workshops, gaming, creative writing, book clubs, film screenings and lectures, was up 74 percent downtown.
With more and varied meeting spaces, the library can expand its programming for teens, children and adults to meet the demand. In addition to meeting areas, the design includes “nesting” spaces for private study. The space will also be flexible, so as to meet the changing needs of library visitors over the next 30-plus years.
Architects are using public input to design the building — an example of form following function. Those drawings should be released later this spring. A well-designed, airy building with public outdoor that greets the street, rather than being standoffish toward it, could set the tone for further downtown development.
“Even if I don’t know where it is, if I’m driving by,” Vines said. “I should be able to know that’s the Durham library.”