Howard County Times

Howard Co. library prepares to open new Ellicott City branch

The small chairs that look like train cars with cutouts for windows were already placed at the ends of the stacks. Nearby, project manager Vivian Ramirez was pulling the wrapping off the soft mini-sofas, adding more bright colors to what, within days, will be the children's section of the new Howard County Public Library's Charles E. Miller Branch and Historical Center.

Upstairs, employees peeled plastic sheets off carts loaded with books for grown-ups, and all around electric tools hummed as workers scrambled to ready the place for visitors.

"It's been so hard being here because I want to borrow a book but I can't. We're not open yet. I want to bring my children here," Ramirez said. "I can't wait."

The $29 million library in Ellicott City — at 63,000 square feet, Howard County's largest — has everything from a theme reaching back into the area's roots to forward-looking energy efficiencies. It is home to a collection of quarter-million items, said Valerie J. Gross, president and CEO of the county's library system. She said the facility will offer the resources that county residents use and appreciate.

Where the library it is replacing was bursting at the bindings to accommodate an average of about 2,700 visitors a day in a structure about one-third the size of the new library, the new digs have the space for more.

"Here, I'm looking for 4,000 a day," said Susan Stonesifer, branch manager. "I know that we are going to be a place to go."

More than that number are expected to turn out Saturday, Dec. 17, when the library makes its public debut with fanfare and tours. Pre-opening tours were in the works for area officials.

Gross said the system has per-capita use that's among the highest in the country.

"Overall, we have 3 million visits per year. That's tripled in the last 10 years," she said.

In addition, she said, the new building was designed to foster what have become the system's pillars: self-directed education, research help and instruction, and experiences that are instructive, enlightening and cultural.

It has nine "quiet rooms" — a whimsical one in the children's section, three in the teenager area, and five elsewhere — while the old Miller branch had none. Gross said study rooms were among the most-requested space, and she expects most will be used by book clubs and students of varying ages.

For technology, there are 100 public computers throughout the building, including those in a glassed-in technology lab on the main level. Specialized online research tools are available.

The library shares a small, 470-parking-space campus with a senior center and the former Miller branch, which will be turned into administrative offices to free up rooms in other branches where offices are scattered.

On the first floor, blue lights in the patterned carpeting create a path to the colorful children's section. Overhead, a river of white lights representing the Patapsco River leads past the main desk and into stacks, sitting areas and tables. The children's section has a large room that can be used for crafts, stories and more, with stroller parking outside it.

A 3,000-square-foot meeting space can be split into three rooms that each hold 100 people. The space features windows that can be clear to let light in or darkened for daytime movies, and will allow the library to hold any number of programs that it has had to move elsewhere, including spelling bees, graduation for the literacy program, and high school student competitions. Already, the space is pretty well booked for coming months, Gross said.

The second level is devoted more to adults. It includes the Historical Center, where the Howard County Historical Society is moving its archives, making them more easily accessible for most people doing historical and genealogical work. Slicing through the upstairs are a line of desks for about three dozen computers.

Throughout, stacks of materials — books, audiobooks, movies, DVDs and magazines —are dotted by nooks that hold a variety of types of seating and electrical outlets.

Working with library officials, architects at Grimm + Parker Architects came up with the Patapsco River and the area's history as the theme.

"When we visited Ellicott City, what was so striking are the natural features that the town grew up around," said Melanie Hennigan, the principal architect.

There was the Patapsco, the history of farmers learning about sustainable agriculture and turning to crop rotation as a result, the local stone used to build in Ellicott City's historic district and beyond, and the lovely views.

Here, they all have a modern twist. The building is composite stone and glass — the glass provides natural light and views of the outdoors. It was designed to meet at least the silver level of LEED certification for energy efficiency, and related features include a vegetated second-floor roof by its outdoor seating, solar panels and LED lights. Visitors can see energy use monitored on a dashboard by the entrance. A nature theme is carried out in the earth tones that are everywhere, the reedy design of the panels used for tables, dividers and atop stacks, the water cascading down blue tiles at the entryway to the building, outdoor classroom and gardens.

The "Enchanted Garden" at the side of the building won't open officially until May, but the basics, including the raised garden beds and tree-stump seating, are there. It will include a pizza garden to teach about healthy foods and a rain garden.

Welcoming visitors to the library is a big frog statue, advising people to "come find my friend in the Enchanted Garden." And, as promised, his friend, a smaller statue, is there.