After $900K upgrades, new chapter opening for Howard County Library's Central Branch

For The Baltimore Sun
A grand reopening of the Central Branch library in the heart of Columbia's Town Center is set for Nov. 5.

When Sharon Nesky drives by the central Howard County Library on her way to work, she glances in the building's direction for signs that a $900,000 renovation project that has shuttered the facility since April is finally wrapping up.

The information technology manager misses her weekly library visits so much that she has pressed her fitness instructor to get regular construction updates from a knowledgeable client of his — Valerie Gross, president and CEO of the library system.

The wait is almost over for Nesky and other loyal patrons who have been champing at the bit:

A grand reopening of the library in the heart of Columbia's Town Center is set for Saturday, Nov. 5.

The updated 35-year-old facility — which had been projected to reopen in September — will have expanded space for key initiatives such as Project Literacy, STEM and children's activities, and has generally been "refreshed," Gross said.

The project was funded by a $488,000 grant from the Maryland State Department of Education and $412,000 from Howard County government.

A failing heating and cooling system, leaky roof and other problems that arose since the branch's last renovation in 2001 spurred the closing, Gross said.

"Since we had to close anyway, we decided to capitalize on the opportunity" by incorporating other improvements, she said.

The renovated Central Library will be the same size as the original building, since the site offers no room for expansion. And there will still be only 104 parking spaces, though the relocation of administrative staff will free up as some of them.

One of the first things visitors will notice is the lime-green, gray and black patterned carpeting throughout the building, Gross said, as well as updated furnishings and lighting.

Project Literacy — an adult education initiative begun in 1987 at the Central Library and the only library program in the state to receive $250,000 annually from the U.S. Department of Labor, Gross said — will benefit from a 30 percent increase in dedicated space.

The program provides tutoring in basic education skills and help in passing the U.S. Citizenship and General Education Development tests for persons from 43 countries who speak 29 languages. There is a waiting list of 30 to 50 names with an average wait time of four months, which the library hopes to shorten.

The science, technology, education and math program will also get a new space that can seat 60 students and the children's classroom will be 40 percent larger, among other new library features.

But the library system's growing pains aren't only being felt at the Central Library.

Gross spoke of what the future holds for the county's library system — in the near term, as several renovation and construction projects unfold, and 10 years from now.

"We are predicting it will be another decade before there's a possibility of building a new Central Library as part of the downtown Columbia redevelopment plan," she said, noting that any new library construction would also include dedicated space for a business and arts center.

The idea of building a southwestern library branch, possibly in Clarksville, is under discussion, and funds for a feasibility study could be designated in the county budget as early as the 2018 fiscal year, Gross said.

In the meantime, improvements are currently scheduled at other library sites.

About a week after the Central Library reopens, the East Columbia branch will close for renovation, with a projected reopening in April. Upgrades will double the space for quiet study areas and triple the meeting room capacity.

The Elkridge branch closed in June and construction started last month on a new building and do-it-yourself education center, which will be twice the size of the original structure at a projected cost of $16.2 million. It is expected to open in March 2018.

An Elkridge Express Library is open in a trailer near Elkridge Landing Middle School to prevent too many programming disruptions there, and a similar strategy will be put into place on-site at the East Columbia Library, which supports an after-school program for 100 teens and serves as a passport application center.

"These projects all had to be carefully choreographed since there are so many moving parts and groups involved," Gross said.

The May 2015 relocation of administrative employees from the Central and East Columbia branch libraries to consolidated headquarters in the former Miller branch in Ellicott City — located next door to its $30 million replacement, which opened in 2011 — allowed for 2,800 square feet of administrative space at Central to be repurposed for public use and freed up much-needed parking spaces, said Christie Lassen, the library's public relations director.

While it is named the Central Library, that designation reflects its location within the county and not its status as the library system's main facility.

"Currently, the flagship facility is Miller, which is the biggest branch and has the most impressive design," Gross said.

The Miller branch is 63,000 square feet compared to the 47,000-square-foot Central Branch.

Central comes in just behind Miller in other ways: it has a collection of 238,000 items versus Miller's 265,000, and its monthly visits average 40,000 compared with 57,000 at Miller, Lassen said.

When all systemwide projects are completed, staff will breathe a collective sigh of relief, Gross said.

"It's the end projects that are keeping us all sane and make us willing to put up with the uncertainties of construction timetables and redeployment of staff," she said of library personnel. "We are expanding our services, and that makes it all worthwhile."

For frequent visitors like Nesky, Nov. 5 can't come soon enough.

"We have such a great library system and I feel very fortunate to live in this county," she said.

"I am really excited that Central is finally reopening."

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