Bellingham’s Central Library, at 210 Central Street, is the largest of the city’s three locations, as well as the library’s administrative and operations center. The downtown branch welcomed about 630,000 visits in 2019, with Central Library patrons borrowing 1.2 million items and attending more than 1,000 programs. This all takes place in a 1950s-era building that saw its last major renovation in 1985.
Since July 13, Bellingham Public Library (BPL) and the Public Works Department have been working with Tiger Construction and RMC Architects to remodel the Central Library’s main floor. The project is scheduled to be completed this spring.
The interior remodel of the main floor is outlined in an assessment of the Central Library completed in 2018 by RMC Architects. Library leaders expect this project to be the first of several sequential improvements to the existing building and site, including examining options to increase library space.
This project involves remodeling the nearly 20,000-square-foot main floor where adult and teen collections and services are located. Changes will include improvements to public seating and the addition of study rooms, converting the lighting to LED technology, incorporating more efficient book-handling systems, adding two public restrooms, and providing additional open spaces and a more open concept.
Rick Osen, who’s been on BPL’s board of trustees since 2015, says the issue of improving and expanding library facilities has been on the library board of trustees agenda for at least 15 years.
“The original building of the 1950s had a modest expansion and upgrade in 1985,” he says. “Other than a few basic improvements, nothing substantial has been done at the Central Library for the last 35 years.”
In 2008, the library board, in conjunction with library administration, released a commissioned plan for a new library building. But the price tag, combined with that year’s recession, tabled the project.
Over the subsequent years, Osen says, the concept of a new building did not gain new roots, so more recently the board suggested looking at improvement of and possible expansion to the existing facility. For reasons of fiscal feasibility, the board decided on a phased approach to accomplishing these goals, concentrating the first phase on the Central Library’s main floor.
The renovations are on the main floor only, not on the lower floor where the Children’s Library and large meeting room are located, says Library Director Rebecca Judd, but there are hopes to remodel the lower floor in the future.
Judd says that the way people use the library today is different than it was in 1950—or in 1985.
“Today people bring their many digital devices with them and need a place to plug them in. We have greatly expanded the electrical outlets and capacity on the north side of the building, near the large plate-glass windows. We enhanced the seating in that area with new furniture and furnishings to create a more welcoming space, and we replaced the glass in the windows facing the lawn for better views.”
They’ve also created a more inviting teen area in the northeast corner of the main floor, with a fun design, special lights and colorful carpet.
“The public will be so pleased and surprised when we’re finally able to reopen the Central Library—it’s fresh and new,” says Annette Bagley, head of community relations for BPL.
The library staff has been dedicated throughout the pandemic to continue providing materials through the curbside pickup service.
“This has been an especially large task while working around the remodel construction, as access to the book stacks on the main floor is limited,” Bagley continues. “The entire basement was transformed into a Santa’s workshop-style assembly line of desks six feet apart, plexiglass barriers, and staff in PPE to make it all happen.”
Library curbside pickup services—which were initiated in March 2020 to make library materials available while the library is closed to patrons due to COVID-19 restrictions—will continue with minimal disruption during the project. Patrons can request library materials and pick up these items by following the directions on the l ibrary’s website at www.bellinghampubliclibrary.org/curbside.
Library users may see small impacts to parking around the library from construction-related staging and deliveries. All BPL locations are currently closed to visitors, with reopening of facilities coming in later phases of the governor’s Safe Start plan.
“Throughout the pandemic, our library staff has continued to innovate to provide the best service we can,” says Judd. “In late December, we added the myLIBRO app to our services, which allows patrons to schedule their curbside pickups through their mobile devices. Before the pandemic, our children’s library offered 19 story times per week.”
During the pandemic, the children’s librarians pivoted to virtual story times and continue to interact with patrons each week through YouTube and Zoom.
Meanwhile, staff answers up to 100 help desk calls per day. “Since people can’t come into the library to ask questions,” Judd continues, “help desk phones have been a lifeline service for many.”
One challenge created by the remodel is that library staff only have access to the main floor a few hours a day to pull holds and to re-shelve materials on the book stacks. Collections on the main floor are currently covered in plastic.
“The impact of the physical remodel with new paint, carpet, furnishings and layout will be an emotional boost to our community, demonstrating the high value we place on reading and learning,” says Judd. “This boost is especially important as we come out of this difficult pandemic.”
For a sneak peek at the remodel—and a tour with library director Rebecca Judd—please go to https://www.bellinghampubliclibrary.org/news/bellingham-central-library-main-floor-remodel-underway.