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‘Reflect the community where they’re at:’ First of renewed St. Louis County Library branches to open

The exterior of the new Lewis & Clark branch of the St. Louis County Library.
St. Louis County Library
The exterior of the new Lewis & Clark branch of the St. Louis County Library.

In 2014, historic preservationists and community members called for the preservation of St. Louis County Library’s Lewis & Clark branch, designed by noted architect Frederick Dunn. Activists said that branch was the most architecturally significant in the county library’s system. Also at stake were stained glass windows, created by artist Robert Harmon with Emil Frei Studios, depicting Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and Sacajawea on their famed Westward expedition.

Preserving what they can

The efforts to keep the branch from demolition failed, and the County Library System built a new Lewis building for the Lewis & Clark branch, set to open on Oct. 14. Now, the three panes depicting the explorers reside in the rebuilt home at 9909 Lewis-Clark Blvd.

Interior windows of the Lewis and Clark branch of St. Louis County Library.
Credit St. Louis County Library
Interior windows of the Lewis and Clark branch of St. Louis County Library.

“We really tried to focus on what the community wanted,” said Library Director Kristen Sorth on Monday’s “St. Louis on the Air”. “We heard overwhelmingly from the community that they wanted a new branch to support the needs of that area, where it’s an area that struggling at times. The library is a community anchor up there. To do that, we needed to put in a new library system with new amenities to support the things the community wants.”

The decision still rankles some community members. One “St. Louis on the Air” listener both tweeted and emailed wondering about what happened to Emil Frei’s other stained glass panes that do not reside in the new building. She said that Emil Frei would like to archive them for himself.

Credit Provided by Modern STL
Emil Frei windows at the original Lewis & Clark branch.

Sorth said that the pieces of stained glass are in storage right now and the library is waiting to open other five renovated branches, part of a $120 million “Your Library Renewed,” and start construction and renovation on at least 13 other buildings in 2016 before discussing what to do with the leftover panes.

The panes that are hanging in the new building are visible inside as well as outside from Missouri Route 367. The branch is the first new, non-residential construction in Moline Acres in over a decade.

New components of the library

As efforts to preserve parts of the library are in put into place, so are new innovations in the library. The Lewis and Clark branch has some components you may not normally associated with libraries.

  • Expanded children’s area with a program room: For story-time and crafts.
  • The “living room:” A quiet place with comfortable seating and tables where people can go for a less noisy experience. “Our branches aren’t particularly quiet anymore,” Sorth said. “We encourage lots of activity.”
  • Business centers: Stations for copying, faxing, and areas for resume work.
  • Increased computers: The branch now houses double the computers it did before—57. “This is a branch where some of our most important services are computers, access to public computers and access to free WiFi,” said Sorth. 
Credit Aine O'Connor | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis County Library's Library President, Kristen Sorth

  • After-school programming: The branch started Club 367, where students in Riverview Gardens can come to get homework help.
  • New study rooms: Places for individual or small-group study away from the rest of the library.

Role as a community center

Sorth said that, while the library is still about books with 55 percent of circulation still in book-like materials, St. Louis County Libraries are coming into their role as a community center with recent upgrades.

“We offer resources for individuals within the community,” Sorth said. “And all of these new branches that are opening are going to reflect the community where they’re at.”

She pointed to the addition of family restrooms, which the libraries had never had before, as well as quiet spaces as things the community asked for and what the rebuild incorporated. In one of the branches that will be closing soon for renovation, Natural Bridge, the computer lab will even be open past branch hours until 11 p.m. to serve a community need for digital access.

Likewise, the branches are following a “Borders model,” and incorporating café-like seating areas with vending to make sure that patrons can come and stay a long period of time comfortably at the branches.

Several callers during Monday’s show expressed their worries about these new changes, saying they wanted to see more books on shelves, including older titles that may not be as popular as current best-sellers.

“Sometimes I’m puzzled, I realize that we do weeding to keep our collection current, but we actually order about 1000 items a day,” said Sorth. “That means 3000 titles a month and 30-40,000 titles per month going into branches. We’re definitely still ordering paper materials. We know that’s what people want.”

We're definitely still ordering paper materials. We know that's what people want. - Kristen Sorth

Sorth said that books no longer on shelves go to “Recycled Reads” programs and are placed all over St. Louis. Another program, “Sweet Reads,” is a bookmobile that goes to the Spanish Lake, an area that does not have access to a County library, with discarded books for the community.

Up next

The Lewis & Clark branch is one of six branches that will be opening between now and January. Those include, Jamestown Bluffs, Indian Trails, Grant’s View, Weber Road and Rock Road.

“Those branches are a little more complicated because the inside had to change while the outside stayed the same,” Sorth said. “We’re calling them transformations rather than renovations. Those branches will be similar to Lewis & Clark. … We tried to keep with a common theme.”

After those branches open, the Cliff Cave, Natural Bridge, Oak Bend, Prairie Commons and Samuel C. Sachs branches will close for renovation.

"St. Louis on the Air" discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter and join the conversation at @STLonAir.

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.

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