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Why we need a renovated downtown Durham library: A case for a bond


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.”

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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.”



This vision is so lacking.

All this talk about the need for affordable space near downtown - We need housing! We need non-profit space! - Then 4 acres comes up for redevelopment and we propose a 80,000sf building with a massive surface parking lot? What a shame.

A five story building there could house almost 10 times the square footage (800,000sf+). Build a library in part of it, and build the rest as affordable work space, market space, or housing.

There's not that much land left. I am not sure what is worse: 1) to waste land, or 2) to celebrate its waste.


I am concerned about what the closure will mean for the poorest residents of Cleveland Holloway and downtown who use the library as a place to shelter against the heat, have consistent running water, and check email. A lot of kids are dumped there during the summer, the librarians basically providing free childcare.

Durham needs more day services or community centers. Holton is too far for the kids to bike/walk and the shelter is locked after breakfast.

Kevin Davis

@TheMgmt: I'm as big a fan of density as they come -- based on last night's City Council vote, perhaps more than most. But I can see a reasonable argument for keeping a library building standalone. For one thing, this is a renovation of an existing structure rather than a rebuild. For another, libraries are typically civic destination spaces that serve, as a park would, to be an island of public activities unto themselves.

There are exceptions, I'm sure, but even when I think of super-dense places like Cambridge, Ma., where the library sits adjacent to a large public high school -- the expansion managed to preserve the existing park space, a school parking garage/tennis court, and to be a single use facility.

If an enterprising developer offered to come along and build a superdense project on the site, providing an equivalent amount of space and free patron parking at a significant discount ... well, great! But I doubt the economics of that would work out so well. Even at the $2 million/ac. cost I'm hearing of now for downtown land, that still only works out to $8 million in value for a developer. Would that be reasonable to perk someone's interest?

@Natalie: I wonder if there's a way to get shuttle service to the Stanford L. Warren branch during the closure?


I am a big fan of this redesign. Of course, I am a big fan of libraries too.

I hope the city finds a temporary place for the two years it will take to get this done. In Raleigh when they redid Cameron Village Library (arguably the main library for their city and given its close proximity to downtown/NCSU/all income levels of housing it has a similar diverse user base) they found a stopgap location in an old office building that was sitting vacant for future redevelopment about a block away. Has Durham investigated doing this? I'd imagine they could find a partner sitting on something they are ready to redevelop and/or that has been vacant for a while that they wouldn't mind collecting a couple years of rent for. Even an express library (like the one in downtown Raleigh on Fayetteville St) with computers and a small book collection/sitting area would be better than nothing.


@TheMgmt - 10x the size means 10x the cost. Is it in the budget? Nope. They want to spend $80 million on a new police headquarters instead.


The good news is there are lots of housing developments under construction and more on the way. So this should ease the supply/demand problem we face.

And really there is quite a lot of available free land. Look no further than the City owned lot kitty corner to the library. The lot is 1.7 acres of continuous property, inside the loop, mostly empty. Back of the envelope, you could put 500-700 residential units on that site alone with a modest 10 story building.

Want it to happen? You only need to find someone willing to invest $80-100M. Oh hey, look, we've come full circle back to the police headquarters debacle.

Rob G

You realize that Durham County and the City of Durham are two separate governmental bodies, right?


Rob G you might want to get your hyperbole detector inspected ;)

Though in some sense "the government" is we, the people, no?



RFP: Durham County is seeking development proposals for 4 acres of downtown land.
Must include, at a minimum:

a) 80,000 sf public library
b) 100,000sf of below market office space
c) civic design

Send proposals to County Manager, and copy Kevin, Aaron and Rob.

Tammy Lamoureux

Man, I didn't even realize that building was a library. There is no reason to ever walk over there unless you live in Cleveland Holloway. I hope a revitalized building will provide more incentive for community involvement and gathering.

Kevin Davis

@TheMGMT -- you forgot our multi-million dollar consulting fee. Pls tell 'em to make checks out to McDavis Aaron Robazar, thx!


I was at first excited to read that the proposed building would be much larger than the existing one. But then I saw where much of this additional space will be devoted to purposes such as a store, a cafe, a business incubator (whatever that is) and other items. I need to be convinced that all this makes sense.

Kevin Davis

@Tom -- much as how libraries in universities have moved from book-centric to "information commons" approaches, these kind of functions reflect different uses of libraries as information repositories, providing access to information retrieval experts (librarians), spaces for people to meet, more access to technology, maker spaces which fit into libraries' broader mission of enabling access to and proficiency with tech. I saw this with the reboot of the library in my last home (Cambridge Mass.) and with the just-approved plan for a new library in my home town (Winter Park Fla.)

Fundamentally, I assume you'll have less books on shelves, and more "other" space. With catalogs giving great data on book circulation, you really want to keep just the most-circulated books and either reduce the others (leveraging ILL) or store them off-site and retrieve on request.

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