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Carondelet Library has also been redone

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 25, 2012 - With the recent grand reopening of the glorious Central Library downtown, it is easy to forget that other public library branches have been quietly undergoing their own transformations. One of these was the Carondelet Branch, which serves the Carondelet and Holly Hills neighborhoods – long ago divided by Interstate 55 – and is the library I’ve used since I learned to read.

The magnificent Carnegie-funded building was built in 1908. In addition to being a library, it has been used for a variety of neighborhood activities such as dance classes and school graduations. The Red Cross also used it during both world wars. Now it sits in the middle of what must have once been a bustling neighborhood. But the crumbling streets and empty houses that surrounded the stately library only enhance the solidity and dignity it offers anyone who passes through its doors.

My mom and I would walk to it often in the summertime – partly because we were voracious readers, partly to escape our sweltering house and sit in the cool, dim, temple-like structure. Children’s Librarian Jennifer Halla-Sindelar, now branch manager, ran a great summer reading program. She always had a book suggestion for me, no matter what age or phase of interest I was in at the time.

During the 18 months it was closed, I got used to visiting other branches and only recently returned to Carondelet Library, curious to see the changes. From the outside, nothing looked different. The stone pillars still stood tall and proud, the massive wood doors, always a bit heavy for little hands to open, remain an entrance to a wonderful stash of adventure and knowledge. But there is a new main entrance, on the side of the building along with an added parking lot, that is equipped with an easily opened glass and metal door and is wheelchair accessible.

Once inside, I instinctively headed for the Children’s Room before meeting with Jennifer to talk about the renovation. Here, as in the rest of the library, the original wood and plaster molding had been respected, the changes mostly centering on the removal of a drop ceiling to reveal original stained glass, new carpeting and lighting fixtures. The decidedly antique check-out desk was gone and replaced with an open, welcoming counter. An expanded computer area had also been added.

Everything felt brighter and more accessible, but my memories were suddenly displaced. The dim, almost awe-filled atmosphere was gone as was the smell of well-worn books. In fact, there didn’t seem to be nearly as many books in general; and there weren’t – not on the shelves anyway.

This makes perfect sense with the rise in popularity of e-readers and digital books, a demand the library system as a whole is answering. But I wondered how downloading a title could be as fulfilling as perusing bookcases stuffed with un-met characters, worlds and experiences. As if in immediate response, I caught site of a library patron sitting on the floor between shelves, surrounded by his selections, already reading one of them.

As a kid, one of my favorite places was the basement with its winding staircase and tiled floors. The bathrooms were located there, and to gain access, one had to obtain permission and a key from the check-out desk. I was delighted to see very little change there after the renovation – although now guests can use the new restrooms installed on the main floor. There is also an auditorium downstairs, put to frequent use for community programs, screenings and as a polling place.

Despite advances in technology and the changing preferences of the patrons, the function of the library remains largely the same as it did a century ago: a resource for knowledge and information as well as a community space. Both are fulfillments of Carnegie’s vision when he funded libraries all over the country: intentional self- improvement of the individual, eventually resulting in their useful contribution to society.

When I met with Jennifer to discuss the renovation, our conversation kept coming back to the amazing neighbors the Carondelet branch has gained over the years. The tired, empty houses are also being rehabbed as families and a small collection of current and retired professors are settling in the area. One former professor conducted a free program at Carondelet, teaching parents how to help their children with algebra homework and a group of local Scouts performed a flag-raising ceremony at the grand re-opening.

As the decades come and go, Carondelet Branch Library continues to serve as an anchor for the surrounding community and a sanctuary for those in it who love to read, learn and connect with others. The quiet, calm atmosphere fosters immersion and imagination just as it did when I was a kid and, I hope, for another century.

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