Havre de Grace residents discuss what they want in a library

What does a public library mean to a town? How should it look? And what should it include?

On Wednesday evening, close to 30 people came to the Havre de Grace Activity Center to offer their ideas and input on those questions for a new Havre de Grace branch of the Harford County Public Library is to be built by the fall of 2014, replacing the existing building which was built in 1987.

County Library Director Mary Hastler began the meeting by introducing Manns Woodwood Studios, the architecture firm designing the new library, which will be on the same site at Union and Pennington avenues.

Partner Robert Manns, principal architect David Woodward and project manager Eric Bond said that the audience would be free to interrupt them and ask any question or provide any suggestions they would have.

Before they provided their sketches and ideas about the building, Manns said, they wanted to hear the opinion of the audience.

"Right now, we are at the very beginning of this project, and you guys get the very first chance of any kind of input into this project," Woodward explained. "You guys are the base of this project. And so we want to get your creative ideas flowing, and understand how you guys use the library and what you guys want so we can begin with your ideas to give you the library that you want."

White paper, pens and even crayons were handed out to the audience to write and/or draw their ideas. After about 10 minutes, audience members discussed what they wrote or drew as well as what they liked about the existing library with members of the firm.

Among the things audience members said they like is the accessibility of the main desk, located near the entrance of the library and easy to see.

'Storyville,' better look

One parent said the new library should include a "Storyville" section similar to what some libraries in Baltimore County have, providing a large area for kids to play and enjoy books. Another audience member said a larger meeting room is necessary.

Audience members also noted that the existing library is rather insignificant in terms of its appearance, saying it doesn't stand out and isn't recognizable as a library.

"The library makes itself known on Union [Avenue] with a signboard, which is visible if you're driving down Union, but you have to kind of know what it is when you get there," said resident Jack Hirschfeld. He showed everyone his drawing of a possible library, with steps in the front and a lion on either side, like the Art Institute of Chicago.

"Now that's an exaggeration, but you get the idea. You know that's a library," Hirschfeld said to laughs. He said he hopes the new library will include more exhibition and museum space for historical items, noting that the city had a strong sense of history.

Hirschfeld's wife, Jan, said the library would take incorporate the city's maritime history in its architecture.

Deborah Chapman, a resident who has been going to the library for 25 years, said that a traffic light may be necessary to help the elderly cross the street and suggested commemorative bricks could be sold to raise money for the project, as been at other libraries in Harford County.

After hearing initial comments, the architects shared some of their preliminary sketches and ideas for the library via PowerPoint slides. Manns explained what led the firm to come up with the sketches of the outside, as well as the inside, noting the significance of Union Avenue to Havre de Grace.

"We were thinking internally before we got into this thing that whatever we do here has to strengthen the avenue itself, and before we can think about what happens on the inside, we've got to make sure that we draw community in and that we respect the culture that is the community and is the city of Havre de Grace," he said.

The sketches included a play area for children with a boat to go along with Havre de Grace's maritime culture, as well as decoys and boat models in the main lobby. Members of the team stressed that all sketches, both of the inside and outside, are subject to change based on community input and the project budget.

"We didn't want to commit to something and say this is what has to be," he said. "This is your library, not ours."

Historic vs. contemporary

The slides contained a slogan that the architects said guided their approach: "honoring the past while shaping the future," similar to Harford County government's current slogan. One resident, Jeff Andrews, took issue with that, saying that the sketches of the new building didn't match Havre de Grace's architecture at all.

"I would argue the point that you're not honoring the past," Andrews said, noting that the sketches of the library looked like city hall and the police station, which themselves don't match the Victorian style of many of the homes and other structures along Union Avenue.

"This does not look anything like something that would fit in this town," Chapman agreed. "I mean, I don't know anybody who goes, 'oh yeah, I like the police building, I like city hall, I like the way it looks.'"

Project manager Bond said paying homage to historic buildings is a delicate matter, explaining the new library would have to respect the proportions of other buildings on Union Avenue. Manns said the same building materials and methods used in historical buildings are not available today.

"What is often appealing to people about historic buildings is the craftsmanship, which is now long gone," he said. "When we try to replicate that with modern materials and stuff that comes out of the factory, we end up with the Harris Teeters that really are kind of a slap in the face to what traditional historic architecture was."

In regards to a question from Jack Hirschfeld when the groundbreaking would be, Woodward said answered that it would be in summer of 2014.

Hastler said she hopes that 100 years from now, future generations will look at the library as an inspiration for other building projects, drawing some chuckles from the audience. She also promised that there would be an alternate location to fill in for the library while a new one is constructed.

Havre de Grace branch director Irmgarde Brown thanked everyone for coming, and reminded them that they could also provide feedback to the library's Facebook page as well as surveys at the library itself.

Mayor Wayne Dougherty, who attended the meeting, said the new library should "enhance the service that the library already provides to the city."

"It's amazing that [library staff] do that with the space they have there, and it's all due to the personnel they have," Dougherty said. "The new library will allow them to expand those services."

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