As East Columbia Branch Library manager Suki Lee walked through the newly remodeled building, the word she used frequently to describe the updated space was “light.”
“Think of what we can do now, the potential,” Lee said, referring to the vast glass-walled classrooms, meeting and study spaces added as part of a 13-month, $4.7 million renovation.
The branch will reopen Feb. 10.
The project included a complete interior renovation. East Columbia is the third largest branch in the county’s six-part library system, at 47,000 square feet. There are 161,000 items in its collection. It’s the first of two branches reopening this year after construction. A new Elkridge branch is slated to open on March 10.
Angela Brade, the library system’s chief operating officer for support services and capital projects, said the priority for East Columbia was to maximize the building’s designated study areas, whether in quiet rooms or chairs and tables throughout the building in cafe areas.
Administrators proposed the renovation in 2012, but Brade said it took several years to line up the funding and get the project underway. The library opened in 1994.
“We took the space from the 90s and brought it to the future,” Brade said.
Lee said students flock to the library from Lake Elkhorn Middle School and Cradlerock Elementary School. Before the renovation, Lee said the branch hosted between 25 and 50 teens a day. Now, she hopes to see at least 75.
“Kids who would just hang around the neighborhood now have somewhere to go and people who care,” Lee said.
A new designated teen space fills more than 2,000 square feet of the building and features tables and chairs for homework, with a glass-walled classroom and lab spaces next door. Lee said the designated area will allow teens to feel comfortable hanging out at the library without fighting other users for space.
East Columbia’s renovations also included creation of four additional study rooms, a 26-seat cafe with vending machines, 2,700 square feet of classroom space and an updated children’s area. The renovation doubled the passport office to accept passport applications and take passport photos, a major draw for the branch, Lee said.
There will be 74 public computers available and like all libraries in the county, free WiFi for wireless Internet access.
Brade said the goal in focusing so much on study space was to make the facility a “destination library.”
Nationally, the highest percentage of library patrons is millennials, 53 percent of whom visited a library between 2015 and 2016, based on data from the Pew Research Center. The American Library Association found that in recent years, library systems are shifting their priorities to more than just books with an increased focus on technology, such as public access computers and WiFi, as well as a variety of programs for patrons.
Howard County Library System spokeswoman Christie Lassen said the same shift is occurring in the county, where branches are offering an increased number of classes; in 2017 more than 338,000 people, up from roughly 307,000 in 2016, attended classes at the branches, ranging from children’s story and song programs to teen Photoshop tutorials.
Next on the library system’s renovation list is the 18-year-old Glenwood Branch in Cooksville, where Brade said she wants to add more study rooms and take care of “wear and tear” on the building.
Library administrators are also “keeping an eye on” the continued development of downtown Columbia, Brade said, to ensure its Central Branch can accommodate a rise in residents and traffic.
Lee, who has been the East Columbia branch manager for nine years, said the renovation is an exciting step forward.
“I tell customers, ‘you’re going to be wowed,’” Lee said. “It feels like you could be in a whole different building.”