Laurel readers returned to Seventh Street for Monday's opening of the reinvigorated Laurel Branch Library, three years after the original branch's closure.
The original brick building, part of the county's Memorial Library System, was built in 1965 on land deeded to the county by the family of Charles Stanley, a 19th-century Laurel statesman who had served in the Confederate Army. While the library was closed, a smaller temporary library facility was located at 8101 Sandy Spring Road.
Michael Gannon, the library system's chief operating officer, said construction on the new 31,000-square-foot facility began in May 2015 following repeated delays, which included difficulties in choosing a contractor. Costs were estimated around $14 million, Gannon said.
On Monday, county and city officials joined library staff to celebrate the new library with a ribbon cutting ceremony. Memorial library system CEO Kathleen Teaze; Library Board of Library Trustees chair A.C. Wright; Laurel Mayor Craig Moe; County Councilwoman Mary Lehman; and County Executive Rushern Baker were among those who attended the opening.
Through the main entrance, a rounded glass partition, reading "welcome" in several languages, separates the lobby from a cafe of vending machines. Two conference rooms, two meeting rooms and restrooms are also inside the lobby, which Gannon said can have its electricity, heat and air conditioning run separately from the rest of the building using a generator.
"In the event of a massive power failure or a bad weather situation, we can open this up not as a shelter, but a place where people can come in and recharge their devices and get Wi-Fi," Gannon said.
The library's ceilings stretch higher in the main area, where shelves of books and DVDs are spread across the left side of the room, outfitted with dark orange and forest green chairs and wooden end tables. On the far side of the library, visitors can cozy up by a double-sided fireplace.
Gannon said patrons have access to colorprinters and 53 computers throughout the library as well as five study rooms, a designated teen zone, a gaming room and a dinosaur-themed children's room.
"I think the thing I'm most proud of is our children's room," Gannon said. "We have the theme of Discovery Island … because dinosaur bones were discovered here in Laurel. Kids love dinosaurs."
The area is a nod to the discovery of dinosaur fossils in the Muirkirk area of South Laurel, where Laurel Dinosaur Park is now established by the Prince George's County Department of Parks and Recreation.
Outside, Gannon added, the parking lot's permeable pavement and storm water management gardens benefit the environment.
"It's sort of like a filtering system where it takes the runoff from the rain and filters it down into the ground," Gannon said. "We have two electric vehicle charging stations [that] are new for us as well as photovoltaic cells on the roof."
On Monday, hundreds of people walked through the entrance of the new library. Children excitedly followed the glowing LED dinosaur footprints on the floor into Discovery Island, which disappeared in grass-patterned carpeting. A seated island shaped like a volcano is nearby, where lava carpet appears to have erupted from its crater.
In the room, a full-size Nanotyrannus fossil replica lies in sand beneath a glass floor adjacent to a reading room, where a baby saber-toothed cat's footprints climb the walls.
"That's so cool," said Candace Pollock, holding her 4-month-old daughter, Caroline. Branches of a tropical tree stood over Pollock's children, John, 6, and Liza, 2, as they picked books from the shelves, while other children grabbed seats inside a Brontosaurus' rib cage.
"We put a lot of thought and energy into creating this destination," Gannon said. "Research has shown that children need to play in order to prime their minds to learn to read, so we've got some early literacy interactive things built into the shelving."
Assistant branch manager Karen Luoma said other programs cater to teens and adults. When teens aren't relaxing in their brightly colored lounging area facing Eighth Street, they can play video games with their friends in the library's gaming room.
Adults can sign up for future Microsoft training classes, coding classes and other structural courses in the library computer lab, and the library's central location makes its services accessible to the surrounding community, she said.
"It's very much a walking community, so having the library farther away, even just up the street where we were in the temporary site, changes how customers are able to get to us," Luoma said. "We have bus access right outside our backdoor and we're literally minutes from Main Street."
Gannon said the library will remain a popular destination, where visitors can also enjoy the newly refurbished Emancipation Park. The city of Laurel agreed to exchange some of the park property with the library system, he said, under the agreement the county would add improvements to the park.
New features at the park include a colorful playground, basketball courts, amphitheater, picnic pavilion and walking paths.
If patrons are in a hurry, Gannon said they can also use the library's drive-through window to pick up or return books.
Laurel resident Laura Doscher, 39, said the drive-through will be extremely helpful in picking up books to home school her three children. While the temporary location was useful, Doscher said she's happy to have a full library space again.
"It's a huge part of the kids' education," said Doscher, mother of a preschooler, first- and fourth grader. "The old building was pretty dated and a lot of the furniture was worn out. We're looking forward to actually being able to go into the building again and look for books."
Phil Wilder, treasurer for the Friends of the Laurel Library, said the volunteer organization has been saving money for library programs for 20 years. He was thrilled to see the pay off.
"One of the first things we did was invest in a living plant wall here in the new library" in one of the study rooms, Wilder said. "We put the money up front before the building got started so that that could happen. … I also visited the employee lounge and saw there's room for them to sit around in a group and have a nice lunch."
A Laurel library patron since 1996, resident LaQuilla Harris, 52, said people won't find any staff friendlier than those at Laurel. Prior to the former facility's closure, Harris said she would walk to the library every day from her home on Eighth Street.
"I'm just a reading nut," Harris said. "[The old library] was actually small for the crowd that they had, so I used to drive up to Anne Arundel County Public Library. I just look at the layout of the new grounds and it's beautiful. I think it's going to do a whole lot for the community.
As library patrons embraced the new facility Monday, Luoma said she has a lot of expectations for the Laurel Branch Library in the future.
"I hope people really enjoy getting tours of the library and appreciate all the effort that went into making this building happen," Luoma said. "Ultimately, I think that being at the heart of where we are in Laurel means that we're still always remembered as a part of the Laurel community. We're an essential element."