The Columbia Heights Public Library, 3939 Central Avenue NE, has been open more than seven months now. Its high tech capabilities include an automated materials handling system, a new computer system, solar panels, an electronic door opening and locking system, self check-out stations, and an automated drive-up book drop.
So, how are things going?
In general, despite some new-building bugs and glitches, things are working. The materials handling system has freed up staff time. Patrons are learning to use the new gizmos. Materials circulation is up.
But the biggest surprise, according to library staff, is how many people are now coming through the doors.
Building the new building
Public Works Director Kevin Hansen, who oversaw planning and construction—and lost 15 pounds during those 2.5 years—said he knew at the outset, because of the building’s size and complexity, that an eight-month construction schedule was “extremely aggressive.”
Although the grand opening was June 25, 2016, Hansen said he made sure that Library Director Renee Dougherty and library staff were aware that workers would be in the building after it opened. “Typically, a building like that would be a 12-month construction schedule.”
Putting a building on a site filled with old construction debris proved to be a challenge. Consequently, it sits on many steel pilings. The lobby and community room are slab on grade, but the library proper has an 18-inch raised panel flooring system. “The heating, cooling, electrical and plumbing are all hidden under the floor,” Hansen said. “The heating and cooling systems deliver a more constant air space about eight feet from the floor, for a uniform environmental space.”
Eric Hanson, facilities maintenance supervisor, added that when workers need to get under the floor, the carpet panels—backed with semi-permanent adhesive—can be easily pulled out and put back in place when the work is done.
Early on, there was a problem with the exterior doors’ locks and handicap access. The problem was two-fold, mechanical and electronic, Hansen said, and the contractors had to work out a solution. Installation of the drive-up book drop, which had not been part of the original plan, was delayed because workers had to modify the room it would be in, get it approved by the council and then order it. “The delay came not from the city’s side, but from where it came from, in manufacturing and delivery,” Hansen added.
The book drop is tied into the materials handling system; he and Hanson agreed that the technology is impressive. “ It can scan books and sort them by library, including what section, adult or juvenile, the item goes in. Materials are sorted into bins, which saves staff from manually sorting them,” Hanson said.
Hansen said that the most recent problems have been in the conference room. “There is a heating problem we need to figure out. A sensor trips and we don’t know why.” The overhead LCD projector also didn’t work ; it’s been replaced twice, so far. “That’s under warranty,” he added.
Recently, city staff painted the north end of the teens’ section with an accent color. That wasn’t a problem; it was just planned work that happened after the opening. “We had told the staff that we would be in this building for at least six to nine months, tweaking things and finishing work. We did the same thing when the public safety building was new,” Hansen said.
“For me, this was a fun project. In this line of work, we don’t often get to be involved with a building. Whenever you do something like this, you always learn things,” Hansen said. And, speaking as a public works guy, he added, “The storm sewer system is fabulous. We retain everything on site for a 100-year storm.”
A popular place
Dougherty said that while circulation has gone up a bit, overall usage of the library has soared. Many people come in to use the computers and the small meeting rooms. “The rooms are extremely popular. So far, we’re operating under a rule that people can have them for two hours, and we are not taking reservations for the small rooms, those are first come, first served.” Patrons can, however, reserve one of four rooms for groups, including the small meeting room, the craft room, the history room and the community room.
“Our visitor count is rising,” Dougherty said. “On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday nights, we have a ton of people here.”
Some patrons have had difficulty adjusting to the new library, she added. “The children’s department isn’t in the basement, as it was in the old building. This is all one big open space. People are not used to the noise of kids talking. In the libraries of the 1950s, you got shushed if you talked, but we’re not like that. This is not a quiet reference library anymore. There are after-school groups, teens who come here and study together. Today’s learning involves talking. We as librarians want to say that there is value in that.”
Bri Belanger, who has been the library’s Youth Services Librarian since October, 2015, said that the department’s open floor plan draws more families in for activities and story time. “The space isn’t hidden, and there are more opportunities for people to discover it. We have many families who come after school to get homework done and connect with other families. We have good attendance at story times, which are held three times a week for toddlers, babies, and families.”
Dougherty said that after six months in the new library, she and the staff are finally feeling comfortable in the space. “At first we all felt like deer in the headlights. We had to figure out how the technology worked. Now we love it. We didn’t realize how much labor the auto book drop would save. We don’t have to discharge 200 books when we come in, in the morning, anymore. Also, the self checkout saves staff time. The children especially love using it and showing their grandparents how to use it. They don’t have to wait at the desk anymore to have a librarian check out their books. Anoka County’s goal was to have 75 percent of patrons use it; we exceeded that without much effort.”
While there are still some things that don’t work right or need repair, Dougherty said, “Piece by piece, things are getting fixed. The programs are thriving. We have great children’s program attendance, our book clubs are doing well, there are lots of author events planned, and we’re having success with our conversation circles. People come in to use their laptops at the laptop bar. All the chairs around the fireplace are usually taken. We’re issuing many new library cards to people in Columbia Heights, Northeast, and St. Anthony.
“We’ve gotten a lot of positive comments,” she added. “It’s all good.”
From left: Photographed at a rare quiet time, the new Columbia Heights Library is seeing a lot of new people, and the meeting rooms are very popular. Next hoto shows part of the children’s area. The glassed-in area is one of the meeting rooms that can be used first-come, first-served, for up to two hours. Bri Belanger, Youth Services Librarian, and Renee Dougherty, Library Director. (Photos by Gail Olson)