April is a glorious month. Warmer temperatures and longer days bring blossoming trees and blooming flowers. No wonder Pat Boone’s April Love, Doris Day’s April in Paris and Enchanted April, the 1992 film adaptation of Elizabeth von Arnim’s novel, are popular culture standards.
But in April 2015, one event felt less like the charm of spring and more like a dark rain cloud that dampened the spirits of those with an affinity for a certain Downtown landmark. The Columbus Metropolitan Library temporarily closed its main branch for a 16-month, $35 million renovation.
Regular visitors had to find new hangouts. Power patrons had to redirect their reserves to be sent and returned to other branches. Workers on their lunch breaks couldn’t snack on scones from the library’s café or shop for book-themed cards and gifts in its store. Materials housed at Main Library were stored at or dispersed throughout branches. And the building’s 137 employees were relocated throughout the 21-branch system.
Sure, the renovation was an inconvenience, but its lofty goals kept everyone’s eyes firmly fixed on the prize. An updated library that meets the needs of its customers would be created, providing a spacious site with sweeping views of and unique connections to its neighbors.
Perched on a treadmill nine floors above and across from 96 S. Grant Ave., this was my bird’s-eye view of the proceedings as construction workers racked up some pretty impressive statistics on the project — including removing 2,540 tons of building material; planting 96 trees and 522 shrubs; using over 1,000 gallons of paint; and installing 197,000 square feet of new flooring, 5,000 square feet of glass, 1,103 new light fixtures and nearly seven miles of new plumbing, HVAC and sprinkler piping.
Main Library’s transformation is part of a trend in which public libraries are reinventing themselves as community centers that offer something for everyone. No longer just hushed repositories of books, modern libraries are vibrant gathering places. As a result, they reaffirm their role as essential and indispensable to new generations of customers.
The project was completed ahead of schedule, just weeks before more than 4,000 people from 120 countries will descend on Main Library as part of the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions’ 2016 World Library and Information Congress, to be held in Columbus August 13-19.
The excitement began building days before a series of free events were held to celebrate the reopening of Main Library the weekend of June 25-26, including a ribbon-cutting event featuring over 90 library and community leaders and a presentation by bestselling novelist David Baldacci. WOSU’s All Sides With Ann Fisher show aired “CML Grand Re-Opening and Designing For the Future of Public Libraries.” Library employees and Friends of the Library members were invited to a preview party. Journalists took pre-opening tours. And for those of us who work nearby, it’s become the lunchtime attraction in the days following the grand opening.
The original Main Library was constructed in 1907 with funds from Andrew Carnegie. A 1991 renovation included restoration of the original building, as well as an addition to house the library’s large collection of books. The original Carnegie portion of the building was preserved, but the 1991 addition has been transformed into a real showstopper.
Gone is the cluttered hallway just inside the entrance, which used to be filled with scores of printed material promoting community events. Also gone are the benches where the less-fortunate liked to while away the time. Pass the security guards, looking very happy behind their new desk, and enter the three-story Grand Atrium. In this soaring, open, light-filled space, you can sign up for your Main Library commemorative edition library card.
The library’s signature staircase adorned by Aminah Robinson’s colorful murals, Life in the Blackberry Patch, 1900-1930 and Life in Sellsville, was repositioned.
Pint-sized patrons enter their realm of the library through a Lilliputian doorway and make their way to cozy nooks where they can practice their reading skills or listen to stories. A view of OhioHealth’s Grant Medical Center allows them to see MedFlight critical care helicopters landing and leaving. A “Ready for Kindergarten Area” helps preschoolers become accustomed to the classroom.
Large interactive touch screens invite visitors to discover where to go, where to find meetings, what’s happening at the library that day, what’s a good book to check out, and what historic Columbus neighborhood to explore. An enlarged Library Store continues to sell unique book-themed merchandise to support library programs like Summer Reading Clubs and Homework Help Centers.
Gone is the marble veneer east wall of the 1991 addition. In its place is a stunning, shimmering wall of floor-to-ceiling windows, together with a door that opens onto the new Park Plaza patio, a place leading to the Topiary Garden at the Old Deaf School Park where outdoor concerts and book readings are planned. Thirteen pallets of marble and 12 tons of glass removed from the building have been recycled to create a public art piece for the plaza.Visitors can pick up coffee, smoothies and snacks at the new Carnegie Café, where proceeds also support library programs. Interactive features in this area include a touch screen to discover more about Carnegie Hall in New York City and a way to see how tall you are compared to the 5’1” Carnegie.
They can enjoy their selections inside, sitting at tables, in front of touch screens providing access to the library website, or in comfortable chairs while browsing more curated selections from the collection.
Or they can go outside to one of the patio’s café tables shaded by bright yellow umbrellas.
Upstairs, my first stop was to see my friend Angela, the library’s Local History & Genealogy manager, back from her stint at the Whitehall branch where her department was moved during the renovation. She pointed out how the upper two floors of the library offer plenty of study rooms, meeting rooms…
and places for quiet contemplation,
and the Gothic spires of neighboring Cristo Rey Columbus High School, housed in the former Columbus Deaf School.The Reading Room, on the top two floors of the building’s south-east corner, provides a quiet space for study, research and reading.
The tall stack tunnels are gone, replaced by shorter, less populated book shelves that allow for unobstructed, expansive views. Before, more than one million items were accessible at Main Library, but now its shelves hold about 300,000 items; the rest are available via the 14-member library consortium that has significantly expanded my borrowing horizons.
Displays entice customers to check out curated book selections, not only at the landings by the elevators and the stairs,
but also from the popular “Quick Pick” collection of books that cannot be reserved or renewed. These high-interest titles, often that would have long wait periods if they are reserved, are available only to customers who visit the library and do not appear in the library’s catalog.
Some librarians still stand at service kiosks, offering to help customers as they pass by. Others practice “roving reference,” designed to increase staff interaction with customers by giving librarians tools like iPads in cases with hand grips or worn slung across their body like a messenger bag, allowing them to move out from behind the desk, stroll the stacks and proactively offer assistance to customers.
Exhibit galleries on the second floor of the original building showcase works of art that Columbus artists created from recycled library books, such as Dream Catcher, by Gaye Reissland and her 15-year-old nephew, Will Wilder. Proceeds of art sales also support the library’s mission.
In her artist’s statement for A Life Unbound, Janet George writes, “Reading did more than supplement my education and teach me to think critically and holistically. Whatever I wanted to learn – to crochet, to knit, to take photographs, to run a business, to teach children about longitude and latitude, to write a resume, to understand the grieving process, or to learn the principles of leadership – it was all right there at the library. And there was always a librarian ready to assist my discovery. Yes, through books I’ve learned new skills, but their impact has been so much wider and deeper than that….Reading helped me build a life. Reading helped me become the person I am, and the person I am continuing to become.”
However different Main Library appears, that’s a reminder that its purpose and vision remain the same — to inspire reading, share resources and connect people, creating a thriving community where wisdom prevails.