A Sneak Peek at Downtown Durham’s New Main Library

Last week, the staff of the Duke University Libraries were treated to a fascinating presentation by Durham County Library Director Tammy Baggett-Best, who offered an update on the renovation of Durham’s Main Library on N. Roxboro Street.

With our own major library renovation here at Duke just a few years behind us, it was exciting to see what our colleagues down the street have planned. As downtown Durham continues to grow more vibrant, the renovated Main Library promises to be yet another point of pride for those who live and work in the area.

The Main Library renovation started in early 2017 and is scheduled to be complete in late 2019. With over $44.3 million in funding and a planned addition of 19,804 square feet to the existing 65,000 square feet of library space, Baggett-Best explained that Main Library is undergoing some serious transformations.

“Pretty much the only thing that will be left is the foundation and the frames,” she said—joking that the library outreach program “Downtown Library Without Walls” was being taken rather literally by the renovation crew.

Simplified cross-section of Main Library before (left) and after renovations (right), showing the greater vertical openness, connectivity, and natural light in the new building.

And it’s true: with the goals of creating greater openness and visibility throughout the building site, Main Library may be almost unrecognizable to many Durham residents by the time renovations are complete. New roof terraces, glass walls, and horizontally integrated staircases are all designed to create a heightened sense of freedom and connectivity, while new meeting spaces, public spaces, and a comprehensive literacy and technology center are intended to improve community outreach.

A rendering of how the library will look once complete when viewed from the side facing Liberty Street.

Some areas of particular interest include a career development workspace, a MakerLab / S.T.E.A.M. space, a cultural/arts exhibition gallery space, and an expanded and more accessible space for the popular North Carolina Collection. The newly renovated library will also provide more social space for children, teenagers, and adults, along with multiple event venues.

Outside the building, meanwhile, the library grounds will feature numerous open areas for library and community use, including an art garden, an amphitheater, a public plaza, covered seating, an urban agriculture section, and an interactive play and gathering space. Baggett-Best hopes these and other programs will contribute to a sense of community and connectivity across social groups.

Indeed, the renovations are just one part of the Durham County Library’s mission to help Durham grow and thrive. Improved access and technological services feature heavily in their plans. Baggett-Best said they are currently working on a program that will allow all Durham County public school students’ ID cards to do double-duty as their library cards. They’re also working on a way to clear all outstanding overdue fees by public school students at the end of each school year.

Rendering of a community event at Main Library, post-renovation.

It was heartening to learn that Durhamites are big library users, even before the renovation got started. Approximately 71% of all Durham County residents have a library card, compared with 44% statewide. In a recent city/county survey, the only local government agency or service that gets higher satisfaction marks from residents is EMS. In 2017, Durham libraries circulated nearly three million physical items—a number that has been decreasing slightly in recent years in tandem with increased use of online resources.

This seems like a good time for a public service announcement to our Duke students:  All Duke students are eligible to get a free library card at any Durham County Library location. Even if you’re not a North Carolina resident, you can still use the public library, and you don’t even have to leave your dorm room. If you love the hundreds of popular e-books and audiobooks you can get online through the Duke Libraries’ OverDrive app, consider the thousands and thousands more you have access to through the Durham County Library!

Overall, it’s clear that the renovations at Main Library represent one more sign of the ongoing revitalization of downtown Durham. The “library without walls” will have some pretty spectacular walls once again before long, and we can’t wait to help them celebrate its re-opening in 2019!

Learn more

Visit the Durham County Library’s website to find out more about the renovation and see photos from the construction site.


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