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Friday, January 30, 2015

Durham Main Library: Renovation could re-energize northeast downtown

Posted by on Fri, Jan 30, 2015 at 9:09 AM

Where is the front door?

If this is your first trip to the Durham Main Library, that's likely your first question. And it's not a minor one. As it stands, the downtown library, built in 1980, feels like a suburban home where the front door is merely symbolic, and everyone uses the side door off the deck.

"There are two front doors," said Bob Thomas director of design for Vines Architecture, the Raleigh firm hired by the county to design the renovated library. "That was never the intention."

Last night's discussion about the future renovations of the Durham's flagship library was fascinating not just as an exercise to reimagine the space for books, technology, education and community gatherings. There was plenty of discussion on the library's new role in a revitalized downtown and in revival of the corner of Liberty and Roxboro streets and beyond, to Cleveland-Holloway. 

The library should function as the "seam between business, social services and residential neighborhoods to re-energize this part of Durham," Thomas said.

Right now, that seam is frayed. Anchored by a heavy, windowless building, that corner is a dead zone (although, as a pedestrian, you're sure to get a burst of adrenaline as you try to navigate the traffic turning from Roxboro onto  Liberty Street.) The library feels insular and removed from the community (you could compare its vibe to that of Research Triangle Park). The idea is to make it more permeable, transparent and connected to the street. 

Durham's new main library could become what Thomas called "a secure welcoming environment that encourages discovery and learning and engages the community."

Inside, the library should be airy with plenty of natural light, and include quiet areas for formal reading and study, plus flex spaces for discussion and group learning. The adult collection would be consolidated on one floor, instead of separated between the second and third levels. The kids' and teens' collections would increase. The library would include tech centers, maker spaces, multimedia, even video production.

"The main library has a symbolic obligation," Thomas said. "The collection and users are different and the library has different responsibilities."

This brings us to the topic of the homeless people. Urban Ministries is across the street, and during the day many people who use those services hang out at the library. I heard no kvetching about this, thankfully. In fact, some of the written comments proposed greater outreach to help the homeless. Earlier this week, PBS NewsHour aired a segment about the San Francisco Public Library, which has hired a social worker and two former homeless people to interact with the currently homeless. (That also gives more fortunate patrons a sense of security.)

Libraries are vital community spaces and repositories for books, technology and learning; they serve a greater civic purpose than a search engine and artificial intelligence. (Medium has an interesting story about Google's intentions and why we should not trust a corporation to do a library's job.)

Additional public input sessions will be held this spring. You can comment anytime by sending an email to
mainrenovation@durhamcountylibrary.org .

Some quick facts:
  • Vines Architecture, which has designed libraries in Atlanta, Washington, D.C., and branch libraries in Durham, will lead the project.
  • The 65,000-square-foot building opened in 1980.
  • Total program attendance for the main library was 21,120 in 2004. In 2009 it had increased to 39,907.
  • Computer sessions per year rose from 109,000 in 2009 to 127,000 in 2014.
  • If the 2016 bond succeeds—and c'mon people, let's get on board here—construction would begin in 2017. The renovated library would open in 2018, or possibly early 2019.

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