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Update: Central Library ready to close doors, move books

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 10, 2010 - Right now at the old Famous-Barr warehouse on Highway 40, 23 miles of bookcases wait to house the books from St. Louis' Central Library.

"Saturday is the last public day," says Rick Simoncelli, president of the St. Louis Public Library Foundation. "And on the 14th, the librarians will be busy working with packers to start packing collections."

While the move has been planned for awhile, actually making it happen will take some time, and the renovations will take longer than that.

Construction, when it begins, should take about two years, Simoncelli says.

"We're looking at fall of 2012 for reopening if all goes well," he says.

That year marks the 100th anniversary of the library's opening.

The other libraries in the St. Louis Library system will remain open.

Original article, 02.11.10 - Emerson has donated $4 million to the campaign for restoring the Central Library in downtown St. Louis, with the money designated for a new Locust Street Atrium, the company announced Thursday.


The gift is part of the $20 million philanthropic effort to support the $74 million restoration of the library. Construction is expected to begin later this year, with a re-opening scheduled to coincide with the building’s 100th anniversary in 2012.

Announcing the gift, Emerson President and CEO David N. Farr called the library “one our city’s most treasured and valuable assets, and the restoration and modernization of its Central Library is essential to the library’s continued success and service to the community. A reinvigorated Central Library also will play an important role in the renaissance of downtown St. Louis.”

Plans for the restoration call for preserving much of the original architecture of Cass Gilbert while modernizing technology and accommodating more use by the public.

When construction begins, administrative offices will be relocated, and the library's contents will be placed in temporary storage. During construction, lending and other services will be available in the library's 15 other locations.

Between Olive and Locust, 13th and 14th streets in the city, a building presides over the whole block. It’s Beaux Arts style, with a grand outside that hints at its age.

Inside, there’s no hinting. There are shiny marble floors and stain-glass windows and painted ceilings with the names of great authors of the day: Poe, Twain, Thoreau.

Four hundred and fifty thousand visitors come to St. Louis’ Central Library each year, and Brenda McDonald can always tell when it’s their first time.

“You notice them because they’re looking up at the ceiling,” says McDonald, director of central services.

And after more than 20 years, it’s still a delight for her to see.

But starting in mid to late 2010, she won’t see it any more, at least not for another two years as the library shuts down completely for renovations.

During those renovations, some things will be lost to the library, like old treasures that few get to see, some things found, like technology and access, and everyone will have to find new ways of getting their information, including the homeless population that frequents the branch. Still, the buzz is building among the staff. They’ve been waiting for years for the renovation to really happen. And soon, it finally will.


Central Library opened in 1912, thanks to a $1 million grant from Andrew Carnegie, awarded in 1901. Half of the money was used for Central and half for branch buildings, says Rick Simoncelli, president of the St. Louis Public Library Foundation. The rest of the money for the $2 million building was funded through a combination of money from the city and individual donors.


“It was a growing population,” Simoncelli says of St. Louis at the time. “It was a major transportation hub, so it played into that whole growth opportunity that was going on. People used it. People loved it.”

In the 1950s some noticeable changes were made to the building’s inside, including adding a balcony and fluorescent lights. In 1988, the city voted to support the library system with increased personal property tax dollars, and they did so again in 1993.

From 1995 through 2003, 10 of the 16 libraries in the St. Louis Public Library system were renovated or built anew.

Finally, it’s Central’s turn. For the past five years, the library’s own staff and board has re-imagined where and how things will go. Currently, Cannon Design is finishing the concept designs.

Some plans are still in flux, as the library isn’t set to shut down for several months, but Simoncelli knows the price tag is about $50 million for construction costs, including restoration and modernization of the building, with another $20 million for work on two related buildings, moving and rental costs during the whole thing. That’s $70 million total. The $50 million will come from a variety of financing opportunities, Simoncelli says, including bonding, tax credits and the sale of a property next door to the library. The library foundation is charged with raising $20 million from the St. Louis philanthropic community.

“It is our hope beyond hope that we’ll have our grand opening sometime in 2012,” Simoncelli says.

That will be the library’s 200th anniversary.


Before we get to some of the things in store for Central, let’s talk about what’s already there, at least for now. To begin with, a sound structure.

Many downtown libraries around the country have and will be redesigned or rebuilt, many in completely new spaces, Simoncelli says.

But Central has the advantage of a foundation in the historical building, “and we have the ability to refurbish it for the 21st century.”

In that process, some things will be changed and some returned to their original state. The overhead fluorescent lights in many of the rooms, for instance, will be removed.

But the stacks, where books are currently kept, are getting reborn completely.

Currently, seven floors of books fill the space, where only librarians have access. The stacks, original to the building, were built with glass floors three quarters of an inch thick to save on the cost of lighting. They’re cloudy now, and slick with years of wear.

“The glass floors are just wonderful,” says McDonald, the librarian.

But the floors won’t remain, and neither will the position of the stacks, currently in the library’s north end. The whole space will change to allow for a new entrance and atrium off of a new Locust Street entrance. The space will be five stories high with half floors including training rooms, meeting rooms and a cafe.

“It’s only waxing nostalgic,” Simoncelli says of keeping the glass floors. And while the designs for the new space aren’t yet complete, he says some of the glass may be used in the building as a design element.

Out of the stacks, where the smell of old books is strong, another thing to go will be the pneumatic tube system. Like those still used at bank drive-up windows, the tubes allow librarians to request books from different parts of the stacks with a simple note and a swoosh.

Simoncelli isn’t sure when the tubes were installed, but they’ll be removed completely because there won’t be a use for them any longer. Currently, the stacks are closed, and with the renovations, books will be available to anyone, so there’s no need for the tubes.

“It’s just a total reconfiguration of the collection,” he says.

Though McDonald wishes they could remain, they can afford to give up the floors and the tubes, she says.

As a trade, the library and its patrons will get more space and more opportunities for using it, as well as access to more information.

“So all the benefits will outweigh the few things that we have to do away with.”


Floors and tubes gone, but there’s much to look forward to both Simoncelli and McDonald agree.

“We will double the public use space,” Simoncelli says. “That’s the fundamental difference.”

An auditorium will be built below the great hall, for instance, where there used to be coal furnaces. It’s used for storage now, but the space will soon seat 240.

The first and third floors of the library will be modernized, Simoncelli says, and the second floor will maintain the historic spaces while upgrading them. The flow of the entire library will be more logical, he says, and allow for the installation of true infrastructure to support technology. The children’s area will move and expand by three times.

The library will also add a stationary computer lab, a laptop checkout station, and the entire building will offer wireless internet connection.

Also, many of the library’s collections will be digitized, says McDonald, including special collections of photos from the 1896 tornado, photos of the Muny, of St. Louis neighborhood and glass plate negatives from the late 1800s and early 1900s.

“Staff are getting really excited,” McDonald says, “and I am, too.” But not everyone will be happy to see the library close for two years, and it won’t be an easy job closing it.

An Open Book

Closing the library doesn’t mean the contents will be lost. They’ll just be moved. Don’t envy that job. Currently, planners are looking for a space to hold the 150,000 square feet worth of material, but some of it will likely be split up among other libraries. Of the 4.5 million materials the St. Louis Library system owns, 3.5 million are at Central.

Simoncelli doesn’t think moving and storing them will be a problem.

“But I’m not a librarian, and frankly, I’m glad I’m not a librarian because they’ve got a huge and interesting job in front of them.”

When Central closes, patrons will be directed to others in the system, but that may be hard for some.

McDonald says they’re still looking into the best way to help people know about the upcoming changes, most especially the homeless population that makes use of the buildings many resources.

The library has worked with shelters in the city in the past, she says, and “we will make sure that they are aware when we’re closing.”

One man already knows, at least after being asked about it while reading the newspaper at the library. Bill, who’s been unemployed off and on for five years and stays in a city shelter, asked that we not use his last name.

“It’s not gonna be a good, fun time for two years,” he says.

That day, rain fell hard outside, as it had been for weeks, and as he often did, Bill came to the library to make phone calls, set up meetings with people for work and get information. “I’ve got other places to go,” he says. “It’s just surprising. When it closes, it closes. It’s very convenient during the week.”

And he imagines the library’s closing will be hard for many like him, who stay in night shelters and are turned out early, 5:30 a.m. in his case. But like he said, when it’s shut down, it’s shut down.

“There’s really gonna be a hole or a void that’s gonna be noticed when it’s not open.”

The library is hoping people will go to other branches in the system to fill that void.

In the move, the library’s 150 full and part time staff will also be relocated to different branches and buildings. Patrons will be redirected to Central Express, Barr, Schlafly, Julia Davis and Divoll, the closest locations, but all the locations have computers available, Simoncelli says.

The Help Desk

In the process of re-imagining the space in Central, McDonald has made one request. She’d like her office to be in a place where she can still see patrons pass by.

A lot has changed since she began her career as a librarian. McDonald no longer helps people find information directly, but the joy of the job is still there for her.

“When you connect a person with what they’re looking for, that’s what I think a lot of librarians really enjoy doing.”

And with all the upgrades, she’s confident that the library and its staff will provide even more to people in St. Louis. McDonald’s been with the library for more than 20 years, and in that time “we’ve watched our circulation go up and up and up,” she says, from a circulation of about 20,000 a month when she started in 1988 to 46,000 this past July. From everything she’s seen, McDonald says that when a branch renovates, those numbers increase even more.

She hopes that will include people in the neighborhood and people visiting the city. “I think a lot of people drive by right now and really don’t realize what the building is,” she says.

After the renovations, she hopes they will.

And when they do come in, McDonald will be among the staff here, ready to help people find what they’re looking for, even if at first, all they’re looking at is the ceiling.

City library system

Between 1893 and 1894, voters in St. Louis approved an independent board and a property tax that made the library open and free to all.

By 1938, the library system’s collection grew to 900,000.

Today, there are 15 branches, as well as Central Library, with 2 million annual visitors, 4.6 million items, 85,000 members and 300 full-time staff. 

For more information, go to slpl.org .

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