Don’t Judge a Library by Its Cover

Posted July 18, 2008 at 3:58pm

For those who judge books by their covers, the recent and planned renovations at Capitol Hill’s two public libraries look like they’d be rip-roaring reads.

But that’s not the case once you get into the details of the story.

Librarians and patrons say the recent renovations of the Southeast Neighborhood Library, while spectacular in appearance, have left a truncated collection.

And the upcoming renovations for Northeast Neighborhood Library do nothing to address some of its most pressing design problems.

Remodeling libraries while enhancing community space has been a chief goal of D.C. Chief Librarian Ginnie Cooper since she took office nearly two years ago.

The library’s Capital Projects office has a budget of more than $200 million to rebuild and revamp many of the city’s libraries.

But in some cases, bringing the library into the 21st century has had unintended consequences.

The Southeast Neighborhood Library, housed in a 1922 Carnegie building on the northern edge of Barracks Row, received an all-expenses-paid makeover courtesy of the American Library Association and its affiliated publication, Library Journal, last year.

The wall cornering off the children’s room was knocked down to allow more natural light, and the decor was revamped to give a modern edge to the classic space. The branch also received 24 new public-access computers to promote technology use within the community.

But in order to accommodate its new digs, the library has had to cut back on what libraries are traditionally known for: books.

Branch Librarian April King says shrinking the collection of printed materials is a trade-off for providing more digital resources, including archived periodical databases. The library has improved its interlibrary loan system, so she can count on requested titles from other branches to be delivered to Southeast within two days.

“We’re heading towards the 21st century model,” she said. “We’ve invested money in electronic resources. That’s the offset of having the book space.”

Children’s Librarian Tamara McKinney, who has been at the branch for three years, mourned the shrinking selection and said she has heard similar feedback from regulars.

“We did cut our collection quite a bit to fit into the new configuration,” she said, noting that before the renovation, the branch boasted many more children’s titles than its closest neighbor. “A lot of people complain about the lack of classics in the collection.”

McKinney likes the added light and aesthetic details that came along with the renovation, but she still can’t bring herself to say it was worth the loss of books.

“It was hideous in here; I’ll let that go. There was a smell. It wasn’t pretty, but I miss my books,” she said.

The Northeast Neighborhood Library, about a mile away at Seventh Street and Maryland Avenue Northeast, has also faced struggles in bridging the digital divide.

Though the Georgian Revival brick building is set to undergo early phases of a $1.5 million renovation and restoration this fall, the aesthetic and structural changes aren’t expected to alleviate the library’s main challenge: making a modern library work in a historic building that opened in 1932.

“We need a building designed perhaps to give better flow of people, provide more cubby holes, provide more secluded places for people,” said Northeast Librarian Karen Butler, adding that the upswing in circulation has already brought many new faces to the now-busy site.

Sarah Dykstra, a Capitol Hill nanny whose two 6-year-old charges live equidistant from the Southeast and Northeast libraries, visits both about twice a week.

She said that though it’s a bit darker, the children prefer the Northeast branch because it offers greater private space and a broader children’s collection.

“They like having the upstairs to themselves, and there are toys there,” she said.

The old building also presents difficulty in accommodating the high-tech needs of visitors.

“It’s almost comical sometimes, because we’re trying to make the 21st century work in the 18th century and 19th century, but we make the best of it,” Butler said.

Northeast is also slated for interior renovations, which will focus on fixing problems like the lack of electrical outlets, but they are not scheduled until 2010.

Even slight interior renovations in historic sites present a number of logistical challenges, noted Capital Projects Director Jeff Bonvechio.

“It’s about taking those unique historic parts of the building and finding how do you best celebrate them and make them part of the modern library,” he said.

In addition to adding usable space, Bonvechio said, “it’s one of those things to the casual observer you may not even realize that you’re walking into a building that’s lighter and bright. But I think it kind of affects the subconscious way the library user thinks of that space.”