Visit the Newly Renovated Durham County Main Library

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Durham County Main Library reopened this summer after a four-year, multimillion dollar renovation completed by Vines Architecture

Tatum Cooper, 9, and her dad, Eric Cooper at Durham County Main Library
Tatum Cooper, 9, and her dad, Eric Cooper, peruse the children’s section on the first floor of the Main Library.

BY J. Michael Welton | Photography by John Michael Simpson

It’s not every day that a $6 million library renovation turns into a $44.3 million community center. But that’s precisely what happened with the Durham County Main Library.

Sure, it took more than a day. More than a decade, really. But in that time, the Durham County government – along with a team of architects, engineers and librarians – collaborated to give the city a state-of- the-art, free asset that serves all its citizens.

“We call it a transformation because it’s not completely new – some areas are part of the old Main Library,” says Library Director Tammy Baggett-Best. “The original building was 65,000 square feet, and we added 31,000 more, so it’s about 96,000 square feet. But it’s about content, not size.”

The process started in 2010 with a facilities study for the library renovation, shelved due to the Great Recession. Raleigh’s Vines Architecture was brought in a few years later to take a new look. By that time, Tammy was thinking bigger – specifically by adding a fourth floor to the three- story structure – and the architects agreed.

The library’s mission was growing, along with the city. “The [county] commissioners realized that downtown was changing from the time they budgeted it originally,” says Bob Thomas, principal and director of design at Vines Architecture.

So, the architects spent a year pumping the brakes and looking at more visionary ideas. “We talked about the role of architecture in the public realm – the urban planning and what could be done with the neighborhoods and connections to the landscape and being pedestrian-friendly,” he says.

A bond referendum passed in 2016, supplying funding to begin anew on the outdated 1980 library. “The original building was internally focused and built of precast concrete with tiny windows,” says architect Jeff Schroeder, an associate principal at Vines who specializes in library design. “It was all about the books, with no friendly seating areas – and our real goal was to reconnect it to the city, rather than have it act as an introverted building.”

The original had its challenges, with two entrances – one unused on the second floor and another in the basement near the parking lot. Now there’s a south-facing porch on Liberty Street that acts as a huge, welcoming billboard. On the eastern edge is an auditorium that’s open to a green amphitheater. “On the Cleveland-Holloway side at the lower, pedestrian level, we put all the glass for transparency, inside to out,” Bob says.

Inside, it’s dedicated to merging its collection of books with a commitment to the 21st century. “We were trying to make sure we have space to serve all audiences – separate spaces for children, teens and adults – and for the entrepreneur community, an incubator section,” Tammy says. “We also wanted to focus on spaces for the five disciplines of science, technology, engineering, arts and math.”

The architects looked back at the history of library design, but also to the growth slated to take place around the new building. “We did a lot of research on what’s in the pipeline,” Bob says. “From a scale standpoint, it fits in context – there are no big buildings now, but it will fit in as additional larger buildings are added in.”

They wanted space for coding and robotics – and a room dedicated to the library’s North Carolina Collection and its focus on Durham. There’s a multisensory room to calm children, along with a space devoted to autism spectrum disorder. “We wanted to offer something for everyone in the community – because we are the great equalizer,” she says.

The exterior and interior spaces are all woven together by a design concept the architects call a thread – a series of flexible zones rather than paths and rooms. The main entry porch uses light-toned concrete pavers to define the inside/outside thread, and concrete walks connect the thread to downtown.

“Inside, the thread is defined with a wood floor and various furniture zones and program spaces that overlap or parallel and help to stitch the thread to the adjacent ‘people’ spaces,” Jeff says. “On the second- floor main entry, the thread is defined with ceramic tile that provides additional durability, yet tonally aligns with the wood floor on other levels and the stairs.”

The idea is to choreograph experiences so people can activate the spaces. “How you place the furniture helps orchestrate what happens where, especially with a big open floor plate,” says Kaitlan Phelps, interior designer at Vines.

Outside, one of the library’s uses is defined by the folded zinc panels on its upper two levels. “It’s designed to mimic books on a shelf,” Jeff says. But inside, this library is a living room for the entire Durham community. “This library belongs to the residents of Durham County,” Tammy said during its reopening on July 20.

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