Fourteen-year-old Oumou Diop lost her old book hangout when the Borders in downtown Silver Spring closed in 2011. She’s been through her collection at home many times.
“I’m looking forward to something new to read,” Diop said as she waited Saturday with her mother and sister for the doors of the new Silver Spring Library to open.
About 500 people turned out for a first look at the striking five-story, $64 million work of cantilevered glass and stone that juts out over the corner of Fenton Street and Wayne Avenue like the bow of a ship.
For library lovers, Saturday’s ribbon cutting was a proclamation of recovery — from the recession-era spending cuts that plagued systems in Montgomery County and across the country. County leaders hope that the new building, located in the urban core of a rapidly diversifying Maryland suburb, will be a gateway of opportunity for the low-income and immigrant communities mixed among enclaves of astonishing wealth.
It was built to straddle the digital and print ages, embracing the former without forsaking the latter. All the 21st-century stuff is there: charging stations, media labs, 3-D printers and an Apple Store-style tech bar where staff will offer help and lend iPads. But there are also 100,000 print volumes, officials say, twice the number available at the old Silver Spring library on Colesville Road, which closed in March after 58 years. Community members made it clear they were not ready to give up on books.
“They wanted tradition mixed with the future,” Montgomery library director Parker Hamilton said.
Like cafes and parks, libraries have become an essential “third place,” that spot away from home and work where people can meet, do business or simply take the lonely edge off of modern life.
The new facility is filled with formal conference rooms and casual gathering spaces. The first two floors have been set aside for use by to-be-determined nonprofit and community organizations.
“It’s not just a place to come check out a book. It’s a community focal point,” said Montgomery general services director David Dise, the lead official on all major county construction jobs. He calls the building “iconic.”
The story of the library is a much happier one for Dise to discuss than his other big project just a few blocks up Wayne Avenue, where the Silver Spring Transit Center is finally lurching toward completion, four years late and tens of millions of dollars over budget.
Long-running transportation issues also linger around the library, which was designed to accommodate the proposed Purple Line light rail linking Bethesda and New Carrrollton. One of the two planned Silver Spring stations would run directly past the library’s main entrance, through a plaza located behind the dramatic glass facade on Fenton Street. Much of the building’s basic design was predicated on accommodating the rail line, according to architect Bill Evans of the Lukmire Partnership.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) is supposed to decide whether to shelve the project by the end of this month. For it to survive, he says, the $2.4 billion price tag must come down.
For the moment, the plaza is decorated with ornamental rocks and wooden pathways. Markings show where the eastbound and westbound tracks would run.
With or without the light rail, “this can remain a nice plaza,” Dise said.
Saturday’s opening reflects a better day for public library systems in the region and around the country, many of which took deep cuts during the recession. Funding has “stabilized,” according to the federal Institute of Museums and Library Services, which supports and monitors library agencies.
Montgomery’s 21-branch system had budgets cut by nearly one-third from 2009 to 2012, resulting in winnowed staff, smaller collections and fewer hours. But last year, newly renovated libraries in Olney and Gaithersburg came back on line. The department’s $40.2 million appropriation for the fiscal year that begins July 1 is just about back to pre-recession levels.
In the District, library spending has also surged, with plans for new or renovated facilities in Cleveland Park, the West End and Woodridge in the pipeline, along with a remade Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library downtown. Spending in Fairfax and Prince George’s counties remains stagnant.
Montgomery elected officials took turns offering their testimonials. County Council President George L. Leventhal (D-At Large) said it was “the result of government working together and getting things done.” Council member Nancy Floreen (D-At Large) called it a “great day for the county.” State Sen. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Montgomery), a candidate for Congress in the 8th District, proclaimed it the “most beautiful library in the world.”
Patrons streaming through the main Fenton Street entrance came to an escalator pavilion and Kefa Cafe, a small outpost of the popular Bonifant Street coffee shop.
The three library floors are industrial-modern in terms of decor, with lots of exposed ductwork, raw concrete and floor-to-ceiling windows. The third-floor entry area has a help desk, automated self-checkout machines and an area with technology for disabled users. The fourth floor houses most of the adult fiction and nonfiction, along with a periodicals reading room.
The top floor is for kids, with an activity room and an early-childhood learning center. When inspectors raised concerns that youngsters might bump their heads on exposed structural beams that run ceiling to floor, workers padded them with a multicolored array of pool noodles.
Amy Kalfus, pushing her daughter, Emma, 3, and son, Ryan, 1, in a bright red stroller outside, said she is drawn to the library by childhood memories of her own family’s weekly visits.
“It was part of our weekend routine, and I look forward to continuing that with my kids,” she said.
Officials said the library is also open to downtown Silver Spring’s small but omnipresent homeless population, which frequented the old Colesville Road building. The subject turned into an awkward exchange during a tour of the library Friday morning for members of news organizations.
Dise said the exterior plaza would be “routinely patrolled and monitored” by red-shirted county employees who walk the downtown streets and garages, assisting visitors and making sure that the area is clean and safe. He also said that construction workers had installed bright lights in the alleyway behind the library “so it is not a place for people to hang out.”
After Dise added that the county would break ground in August on Progress Place, a new and larger Silver Spring homeless facility that he described as “very needed,” library director Hamilton jumped in to reassure reporters that the library would be open to the homeless, just as it would be to other patrons.