Tools for tomorrow: Innovative Elkridge branch library incorporates fresh design, DIY center

Kate Magill
Contact ReporterHoward County Times

“Children’s Reef,” the youth section of the new Elkridge library branch, is a corner of rainbows — a vibrant coral reef mural on one wall and multicolored glass windows on another that capture the late afternoon sun, coating the floor in colors.

The decorative area is among the designs in a $33.1 million building that replaces a library built in 1993 in the same spot on Route 1.

The 35,000-square-foot facility, with a grand opening scheduled Saturday, is more than double in size of the previous building.

Branch Manager Phil Lord said the library, which includes quiet study rooms for the first time, and a “do it yourself” tool lending library called the DIY Education Center, will greatly improve the branch’s visibility.

“Customers will be freaked,” Lord, who’s been the manager since 1993, said.

The branch features a water theme throughout its interior to pay homage to the nearby Patapsco River, Chief Operating Officer for Support Services Angela Brade said. The theme runs from the Children’s Reef to a fish art installation in the vending cafe and a water art installation in the lobby.

As part of the expansion, the branch’s collection will increase 5 percent and four new full-time staff members will be added, Lord said.

Before the renovations, Lord said 50,000 to 60,000 items a month were checked out, now he hopes to see that surpass 75,000.

The library was years in the making. A 2009 feasibility study for the county’s libraries found that a new site would be the most cost-effective approach to address the Elkridge area’s growing population, projected to increase by 40 percent between 2000 and 2030, reaching 38,000.

The Elkridge branch is the third in the county’s six-branch library system to undergo renovations in the last two years. In 2016 Columbia’s Central Branch underwent $900,000 of improvements and earlier this year East Columbia Branch reopened after a $4.7 million renovation.

The library system’s commitment to updating its branches and services is in line with many systems’ efforts across the country to stay up to date, said Pam Sandlian Smith, president of the national Public Library Association.

“As libraries evolve, one of the things that’s critical for us is to remain relevant. We are so much more than a place to check books out. Books are our bread and butter, it’s where we started ... but we’re so much more, we’re places where people can learn,” she said. “We don’t want to become a dusty old warehouse of old books, but to be that vital place in the community where people come to share ideas and collect ideas and talk with each other and learn from each other.”

One of the biggest attractions is expected to be the DIY Education Center, a tool library where patrons can check out a variety of household tools, ranging from ladders to sewing machines and cake pans.

The tools will be available for a week at a time, with the same fine rates as DVD checkouts for overdue items, $1 a day. The tools offered for check out will be changed regularly based on customer feedback.

The tool library is one of only a handful of its kind in the area. Station North Tool Library in Baltimore City offers class pass memberships for its tools and classes beginning at $9 a month and a “sliding scale membership.” Retailers such as Home Depot offer tool rentals by hour, day or week; prices vary by the tool, for a cordless drill, a four-hour minimum rental starts at $15.

The Elkridge branch will add adult and children’s classes, many of which will correspond with the tools offered in the education center, Lord said. Previously the branch offered one to two adult classes a week, but Lord said he’d like to see that number increased. The number of new classes hasn’t been decided, he said.

Designers were inspired by a tool library at the Berkeley, Calif. Public Library, Brade said, and wanted to expand on the idea to offer a wider variety of resources. The center is the first tool lending library in one of the county’s branches.

More library systems are pushing themselves to diversify their collections available for checkout, said Denise Agosto, Director of the Master's of Library and Information Science Program at Drexel University in Philadelphia. Agosto said that at one branch in the Philadelphia library system there’s a musical instrument library, in another, neckties.

“The whole purpose of a public library is to serve the needs of a community and that can be any kind of need. Many libraries are broadening their collections in terms of what they offer,” Agosto said. “It’s really important to stress that libraries are moving away from focusing on the collection to focusing on the community.”

As libraries across the country have diversified their offerings, Sandlian Smith said the skills of librarians have diversified to be more technically inclined and to have strong personal skills. At the Elkridge branch, Lord said he’s seen a similar shift for librarians to be tech- and social-media savvy, and to be talented problem solvers.

“The job of a librarian was closer to an organizer of things, we connected people with information. We still do that, but now we are developing relationships and partnerships with people in our community,” Sandlian Smith said. “The skill set that’s really important for librarians now is we have to be people people. We have to be endlessly curious.”

When designing libraries, Sandlian Smith, of the national association, said the shift to a focus on community interaction has meant a change to constructing spaces that prioritize bringing people together and providing space for a wider variety of activities, including group meetings and classes.

“Libraries are really taking a closer look at ‘what do people in libraries?’” Sandlian Smith said. “The traditional way of planning buildings was really to plan space around collections and now I think people are planning space around activities and what people are doing in libraries and how libraries are being used in very different ways.”

This can mean building more meeting rooms for community events and classes as well as more quiet study spaces. The focus of libraries moving forward needs to be on providing space for “participatory” learning, Sandlian Smith said.

Howard County libraries have taken these ideas to heart, with the goal of turning each facility into a “destination library,” Brade said. The Elkridge branch features six study rooms, two meeting rooms and three classroom and studio spaces.

East Columbia Branch Library, which reopened on Feb. 10 following extensive renovations, also features a greater number of study and meeting spaces to give patrons more areas for independent and group learning. Both branches are also now offering a greater number of children’s and adult classes; over 340,000 people took a class in 2017, a 10 percent increase from the year before, according to library data.

The new spaces in East Columbia and Elkridge have a greater focus on bringing natural light and an opening feeling to the buildings, which Lord said he appreciates compared to the more closed-off feeling of the previous Elkridge facility that he called “outdated.” In describing his first reaction to seeing the new branch, Lord put it simply: “Wow.”

“I wanted a welcoming environment, that was first of all bigger and more spread out. I really like our quiet study area, and I like the design, the lightness of the design which far exceeds my imagination and expectations,” he said. “I’m still marveling over how large it is. And I think the community’s going to react the same way.”

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