A Library Grows in Newburg

An underserved community gets a long-awaited branch

March 22, 2010

In August 2009, a decades-old dream came true for the people of Louisville, Kentucky’s Newburg neighborhood. It came in the form of a new library, a branch of the Louisville Free Public Library (LFPL) system. Not surprising to many of the more than 20,000 residents in this traditionally underserved area, the Newburg branch has become an instant success, an immediate center for the community, and a beacon of hope for those who are enjoying its community-building design and state-of-the-art services every day.

The 8,300-square-foot library, designed by Meyer, Scherer and Rockcastle Ltd. of Minneapolis, features a combination of study, technology, and communal gathering spaces, all designed to serve a rotation of users, from children to teens to adults. Much of the input from residents focused on the need to “accommodate all ages,” “be family friendly,” “provide accessible technology,” and “be a kid’s dream space.”

“This library is truly representative of what its neighbors asked and hoped for,” said LFPL Director Craig Buthod. “They talked, we listened, and our architect was able to weave together threads of need, use, and value, making this library part of the community fabric right from the start.” 

A suburban community of some 8,000 households, Newburg began as a German settlement in the 1840s. It quickly became a haven for runaway slaves and, following the Civil War, grew into a small town of predominantly freed slaves. It is still more than 58% African American. Thirty-five percent of its families have children under 18, and 36% live below the poverty level. Only 36% have achieved a high school diploma, and 8% have graduated college.

The cry from the community for a library has been reported to date back as far as the 1950s, and a Newburg branch has been part of LFPL’s capital planning for nearly a decade. Economic woes and political realities, however, presented consistent challenges to getting a library built in the area. Fortunately, the library had one staunch supporter who could make the necessary difference in getting a new branch funded: Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson. His leadership and commitment made the plan for funding this much-needed branch take shape.

“It is a real privilege and pleasure to make this branch available to our residents in Newburg,” proclaimed Abramson at the new library’s dedication ceremony. “What is exciting is to learn about all of the donations and support that came in from throughout the Louisville community. This branch has been built because of neighbor helping neighbor. It’s terrific that the design of this library reflects that communal spirit.”

The contents of the branch reflect that communal spirit as well. According to Buthod, “Generous donors to the Library Foundation paid for every book, every DVD, every computer, and every stick of furniture in the space.”
Library builders today must strike a balance between advanced technology and a healthy supply of books. A positive outcome of the Newburg experience has been greater-than-expected library usage, which sent library staff back to the foundation to ask for an additional $100,000 for more books—a request with which the foundation gladly complied.

That the Newburg branch opened just one week after the city experienced a devastating flood, severely damaging the LFPL’s main branch as well as other parts of the system, only serves to further illustrate the “triumph over adversity” theme that would seem to be the hallmark of the Newburg project. It was a theme that lead architect Jeffrey Scherer, FAIA, seemed to understand from the outset.

“There is no doubt that this project offered a set of unique challenges,” said Scherer. “Given the ultimate speed of the project, the intensity of the neighborhood’s passion, and the high expectations throughout the city, we knew we had to overcome any sense of letdown. The immediate respect for this building, the intensity of use by all ages, and the immediate embracing of it as a community icon and resource, tells us we were able to deliver on the promise.”

Of course, the branch’s instantaneous success comes with its own set of challenges, but according to LFPL Manager of Branch Libraries Lisa Sizemore, the flow of the space and the access to materials and seating are extremely logical and respond well to the different user groups overlapping and coming in during different parts of the day.
“Clearly, the architects had librarians in mind when they designed this space,” said Sizemore. “We have a terrific vantage point, so we can see what is going on in all of the areas, allowing us to be that much more responsive to our clients’ needs.”

The teen center generates a high volume of activity, attracting more than 200 teens a day between 3:00 and 6:00 p.m. Teens take full advantage of 30 state-of-the-art touch-screen computers and spend time in small study groups to work on school projects. Located near three elementary schools and two middle schools, the branch library is perfectly positioned to serve as an education connector in support of the LFPL’s goals of impacting literacy and encouraging students to pursue higher education.

“A real testament to the impact of the library is the students coming in to show our librarians their improving report cards,” said Sizemore. “For us, this shows the students’ respect and appreciation for the exciting things that can happen here.”

The library’s focus on education also extends to adults in the area. Computer classes are generating 30 attendees per session, and the branch is opening an hour early in some cases to facilitate courses on résumé writing and job search techniques.

A children’s area provides flexible space for interactive story hours, as well as quiet time for perusing picture books.

As the nature of the branch continues to respond to the community’s needs, it is evident that the building itself has already become a landmark and an evolving symbol of the fresh energy and ideas that the residents requested.

“It is such a powerful feeling to get this library done,” said Rev. Frank Smith, executive vice president of Simmons College of Kentucky and a Newburg resident. “People are finding their own identity as they use this library and coming to understand the value of having their voices heard.”

And the new branch is already receiving recognition: It just received the New Landmark Award from the Louisville Historical League, honoring new buildings that fit well into their contextual environment.

The branch’s sustainable features, soon to include solar panels on the roof, have been registered for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. A rain garden harvests and cleans water run-off. The form of the roof is deliberate, allowing a uniform harvesting of daylight and a corresponding reduction in electrical power consumption.  

Library officials hope that the addition of this new library will spur further library development in the city as outlined in the LFPL Master Plan. “This is such a lovely space enhanced by its sense of calm, use of light, and quality of furnishings,” observed Buthod. “It is a terrific example of what a new library can look like and how a new library can be used. We’re eager to share this kind of service and space with other deserving areas of our city.”

The Newburg branch has already transcended its role as a neighborhood library. Its mix of young and old, intensity and calm, education and enlightenment, technology and togetherness makes it what architect Scherer calls a “corner store for the mind.” But perhaps Newburg Friends of the Library President Gloria Allen said it best: “Every time I pass the library, I feel like it is Christmas morning, and we are all getting the present we have wanted for so long.”

SUSAN MCNEESE LYNCH is a freelance communications professional and writer working in the Louisville area.


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