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Uncovering the past, preparing for the future: renovation projects at the library

It would be an understatement to say that the modern world is moving toward a more digital future. We are constantly bombarded with the persistent presence of technology, and for librarians, this change is a daily challenge. The technological future is here, and with regard to libraries, the push to adapt has many thought-leaders in the industry thinking forward, forward, forward. But when considering the library’s next step, it might be wise to backtrack, just a bit.

Meghan McCorkell is the Director of Communications at the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, Maryland, which is currently undergoing a massive, multi-part renovation, slated to be complete by 2019. As the library prepares for the innovative changes that will catapult it into modernity, McCorkell has been pleasantly surprised at certain historical items she’s uncovered throughout the renovation process.

As pieces of the building are stripped, murals painted over 80 years ago reveal themselves, finally able to breathe after years of suffocation by chipping paint. There’s “something really magical about that to me,” explains McCorkell, “that you wipe off this paint and history unfolds itself before you.”

Workers at The Enoch Pratt Free Library have discovered old murals beneath the chipping paint they are diligently removing. Used with permission by Meghan McCorkell.

The murals are a subtle reminder that libraries have always been buildings worthy of beauty and art – a belief the Pratt library aims to carry forward into its newly refurbished space. A project 20 years in the making, the Enoch Pratt library renovation aims to bring the building into the 21st century while still preserving particular elements of the past.

“It will be interesting to see how we can operate with upgraded technology,” said McCorkell. “We’re still going to have the traditional things a library should have, like miles and miles of books, but we want to make this a premier facility in Maryland for researchers, and to do so, we have to adapt with the times while preserving the past, to give the next generations opportunities that their predecessors might not have afforded.”

Ben Zenitsky, Marketing and Communications Specialist of the Columbus Metropolitan Library in Columbus, Ohio, shares this philosophy. The Columbus Metropolitan Library system, a 23-branch network of libraries in the Columbus and Franklin areas of Ohio, is currently pacing through its “Aspiration Rebuilding” project, an endeavor to reconstruct 10 of the 23 branches. Throughout this process, the main Columbus Metropolitan Library ensured the preservation and restoration of its older buildings, while expanding into new territories to fulfill the needs of its patrons.

“The big focus was to provide a seamless connection between the old Carnegie building and the new building, marrying the beauty of the past with the demands of the future,” said Zenitsky.

The Columbus Metropolitan Library main branch in Columbus, Ohio, under renovation. This photo is the “before” shot of the main library atrium. Used with permission by Ben Zenitsky.

The historic part of the building was funded by Andrew Carnegie in the early part of the 20th century – a small but beautiful building, it’s made mainly of marble, is very ornate, two stories high, and stunning in its grandeur. The space served a specific purpose when it was opened: to be a vault for a lot of books; it didn’t have a lot of natural sunlight, had plenty of storage space, and was cavernous, with several corridors leading to different areas throughout the library. Now, it reflects the current uses of its patrons, with an open floor plan concept.

“Libraries have changed quite a bit with internet and the emergence of e-books,” said Zenitsky, “and people aren’t looking for a vault for books anymore. They are looking for community gathering spaces,” which describes the current role of the Columbus Metropolitan Library main branch now.

“It’s a big change for a community, and there’s lots of nostalgia associated with it, so we’ve received mixed reviews,” said Zenitsky about the patrons reactions to the renovation, “but the majority of feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. Once customers step in the building, they loiter in the atrium and take it all in. Before it was ‘let’s get the stuff and check out.’ Now people linger and enjoy the space.”

The Columbus Metropolitan Library main branch in Columbus, Ohio, under renovation. This photo is the “after” shot of the main library atrium. Used with permission by Ben Zenitsky.

With discussions concerning the future of libraries swirling toward a digital, technological funnel, library users could assume that looking back at the past, and preserving certain older elements of a library, might be a waste of time. The way is forward, not backward. But that’s not exactly what’s happening with library renovations today. They’re more “one foot in, one foot out” of the threshold that separates past and future.

“I would say that in many senses, the libraries that they have in their minds, the old fashioned ones, are not entirely obsolete,” said Zenitsky, “but we are keeping up with new demands and we are constantly improving.”

Several families in the Columbus, Ohio area don’t have access to internet, so they come to the library to apply for jobs via the Wi-Fi now streaming throughout the building, but they are also enjoying the community gathering spaces, which have existed since the library’s inception, explains Zenitsky.

The Enoch Pratt library renovation is slated to be complete in 2019, and the Columbus Metropolitan Library main branch opened its newly refurbished doors on June 25th, 2016. The “Aspiration Project” for Columbus, Ohio continues, with seven of the ten branches completed.

Featured image credit: Used with permission by Ben Zenitsky, Columbus Metropolitan Library, Columbus, Ohio.

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