Salem Public Library to debut new look, seismic upgrades this summer


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After an $18.6 million bond, seismic retrofits and an 18-month-closure, visitors will soon be able to return to the downtown Salem Public Library later this summer.

Patrons will be greeted by a library with the same general footprint of the location at Salem Civic Center. But the seismic retrofits and other upgrades will protect staff and visitors during a major earthquake. Cosmetic changes, funded in part by $500,000 from the Salem Public Library Foundation, give the once-dated building an open, airy feel.

The construction and seismic upgrades were paid for by a bond voters approved in November 2017. 

Construction is expected to conclude in mid-July, after which staff will begin the move-in process. A tentative date of Sept. 1 was given for the public reopening of the downtown location. 

A rendering of the renovations at the Salem Public Library. (Photo: City of Salem)

The Statesman Journal was recently able to tour all three floors of the library and see the improvements. Officials with the Portland-based general contractor company Howard S. Wright Construction, a subsidiary of London-based Balfour Beatty, declined to allow media photos unless the photos were reviewed and approved by the contractor before publication.

Because it is against the Statesman Journal’s policy to allow this type of control in the editing process, a Statesman Journal photographer was unable to take photos or videos of the site. 

When city officials were questioned about a private company controlling access to a public building in a way that limited the public’s ability to see the taxpayer-funded work, officials deferred to the contractor, who they said has control of the site until construction is completed. 

The main Salem Public Library, the library parkade and Peace Plaza closed in early 2020 for construction. 

The library’s collection, storytime and public use computers were moved to a temporary location at 1400 Broadway St. NE. The West Salem branch remained open until COVID-19 precautions shuttered both.

Tree-themed floors, more light

On Thursday, city librarian Sarah Strahl walked along the exterior of the building explaining the changes. The Peace Plaza and main entrance — once heavy on the grey, blocky concrete design of the early 1970s — will have a more park-like, natural feel. Trellis with star jasmine will snake up the sides of the building, and the tunnel covering the entrance near the Loucks Auditorium was removed to allow for more green space and a prominent, root-safe plot for an Oregon white oak. 

The tree theme will continue inside, Strahl said.

The plaza level, which was once home to the teen center and a shuttered cafe, will be the roots of the building. Multiple community rooms will be available for reservation and public use. Clear glass on some of the rooms replaced dated wood paneling, giving the area a more open, accessible feel.

New flooring and carpet, coordinated with the tree theme, are featured throughout the building. 

The light-filled first floor includes the main entrance, adult fiction and non-fiction, media like DVDs and CDs, and check-out kiosks. Strahl said this floor is themed as the trunk of the library. 

Wood-grain designs, leaf signs and painted hummingbirds dot the floor. Replacing the closed-off circulation workplace with hold shelves and setting back the welcome desk allows for more space and light at the entrance. The relocation of a staircase and the addition of windows on the first floor adds to the newfound airiness of the building. 

New art by Amanda Wojick inspired by a remote “family” of waterfalls in the Opal Creek Wilderness will be featured on the first floor. 

Strahl pointed to several changes made and features kept with children in mind. An automated material sorter includes a glass window for kids to peek in and see the sorter at work. The art woodcarvings featuring woodland creatures marking the youth areas were preserved and protected during construction.

Upstairs, at the canopy level, services for younger children and teens are now combined on one floor. 

Instead of sending their teens downstairs while their other kids play, parents can see them across the glass separating the areas, Strahl said. 

The storytime room, a bigger discovery playroom and a miniature intricate dollhouse — which is also undergoing its own mini-renovation — will return to the floor. 

The teen section of the area uses up the additional space made by relocating one of the staircases. The section will now feature an expanded collection, computers and study rooms.

Staff made sure to include several suggestions made by the teen advisory board, including the return of a chalkboard wall for artwork, Strahl said. 

The floor will also feature nooks for kids to curl up and read in. 

“When you walk in now, it’s gonna feel so big, airy, so beautiful, so light-filled,” she said. “But there will still be spots that are cozy. I think there’ll be something for everybody.”

Keeping the library safe for ‘Big One’

Not all the changes being made at the library are as obvious as new carpet and windows, but they are some of the most vital, staff said. 

The location, opened in 1972 and renovated in 1989, was not built to withstand one of the primary natural disasters threatening the Pacific Northwest. 

“The Library and adjacent parking structure were built before scientists discovered that a Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake could impact the Salem region,” city staff said. “In 2014, the city commissioned an engineering study that found the library and parking structure do not meet standards for life safety. Library users, staff and volunteers would be at risk in a major earthquake.”

Aaron Kimsey, program manager with Salem Public Works Department, said the building and parking structure are being updated to collapse prevention standard, meaning people inside the building would be able to exit the library safely in an earthquake but then not re-occupy it until inspections are done to determine whether the structure is still safe. 

According to the project’s structural engineers, sheer walls spaced along the exterior of the building are a “tried and true,” cost-effective method and will provide strength and stiffness during a major earthquake. 

The improvements will also bring the building up to ADA compliance and improve accessibility. 

Other upgrades include replacing the 60-year-old library shelves, which would not withstand a major earthquake, replacing outdated security cameras and an audio system, and repairing wiring, plumbing and ducting systems to reduce annual maintenance costs. 

Continued community support

In 2017, city officials said the library maintained 337,373 items in its collection. About 1,600 people checked out 3,700 books and other library materials each day, and the library hosted more than 2,000 programs for children, teens and adults every year. 

From August 2020 to March, the library continued to provide services like 44,292 curbside checkouts to more than 11,000 users during the pandemic closures. Library staff reported 18,325 customer interactions online, over the phone and curbside along with almost 200,000 e-book checkouts. 

Strahl said the community has continued to support and utilize the library, even as times have changed. The goal of the renovation is to give back a library that can be used safely for years to come. 

“It was really about trying to make it functional for the future,” she said. “It’ll probably be another 50 years before there’s another big renovation. We wanted to keep it as flexible and adaptable not knowing what the future will hold.”

For questions, comments and news tips, email reporter Whitney Woodworth at wmwoodwor[email protected], call 503-910-6616 or follow on Twitter @wmwoodworth.

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Wednesday November 2, 2022