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Published: Tuesday, 8/14/2001

A library opens a universe of knowledge

BY ROBIN ERB
BLADE STAFF WRITER

There are sheep in a Jeep and, of course, the Cat in the Hat.

There are toad stools, a T-Rex, and a talking Statue of Liberty. Bug-eyed creatures swoop in from beyond, riding shotgun in a 7-foot flying saucer. Poseidon bursts from the sea; a raccoon and owl poke out of a tree.

All this you'll find at Toledo's new Main Library . . . All this, before you open your first book.

"A library is so much more than books these days," library spokeswoman Mary Kay Sanford said recently, as she sidestepped some of the last of the construction rubble of the Main Library.

"We have to be thinking 50 years into the future, and that means changing the way the library serves the community."

When it reopens to the public during an open house Aug. 19 after three years of renovations, the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library will feature video screens, computers, and shelves of the newest videos, CDs, and DVDs. Satellite hookups will provide live feed to the banks of television screens and a completely wired, interactive, multimedia learning center.

"I love it," said 13-year-old Crystal Abalos, a babysitter who almost daily brings her 2- and 4-year-old charges to the partly-opened library.

The Main Library's downtown campus features the refurbished Art Deco structure that fronts Michigan Street, bottom right, and the new addition, which extends between Madison Avenue, left, to Adams Street. The Main Library's downtown campus features the refurbished Art Deco structure that fronts Michigan Street, bottom right, and the new addition, which extends between Madison Avenue, left, to Adams Street.
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"I mean, it's a library, and you wouldn't expect all this, but it's really fun," the teen said. "I was surprised."

On her lap, 2-year-old Migel Lucio was jiggling a computer mouse, giggling at cartoon animals on the screen as they popped up and peered back at him.

Upstairs in the children's library, a life-size Nancy Drew is pursuing the Secret of the Old Clock. (Look closely: it's working and on-time.) Pushing through the wall is a Gold Cadillac from the storybook by the same name. (Yes, the steering wheel turns and the signals work for curious youngsters.)

The library has its Wintergarden, an art gallery, a coffee shop, a gift shop, a fish tank, and a puppet stage. Tucked into nooks and crannies around the old portion of the library are cozy coves for reading, while the new addition features cavernous research areas to find virtually any information on virtually any topic.

"It's an incredible resource," said Richard Everett, a 60-year-old South Toledoan, as he perused a Wall Street Journal in one hand and scanned a computer screen on the other.

"If people don't use it, they're missing out," he said.

The Main Library, which opened in 1940, closed down completely to the public Aug. 6 so that staff could move the collection and hook up the new technology. Its regular hours resume Aug. 20 (See Page 2 for library hours.)

Voters made possible the overhaul of the Main Library when they approved a 10-year, 0.87-mill capital improvements levy in 1995. The levy generates $38.6 million and also pays for three brand new branch libraries and sweeping improvements at the system's remaining 15 branches.

A hefty portion of the funds, by far, go to the renovations at Main Library, 325 North Michigan St. expanding the library from 186,000 square feet to 271,000 square feet, aesthetically linking the old library to a new addition and, most importantly, making the entire structure more user-friendly as soon as you pull up to the doors.

Even parking for the library has increased to 300 spaces from, well, no spaces.

A glass-block walkway winds from the parking garage, through the automated downstairs entrance to the library, and past the gift shop, coffee house, and a bank of televisions running coverage from CNN and local stations.

Upstairs, the multimillion dollar changes are immediately obvious just by glancing at the sea of shelves of books, periodicals, tapes, videos, and other materials.

Before the renovations, three-quarters of the Main Library's collection could be accessed only by librarians who had to search through the crammed stacks in the basement. Now, all the collection is within arm's reach to the public.

"We've spent a lot of time planning, a lot of hours here," said Charlie Oswanski, superintendent of facilities and operation. "People might get the impression in the new area that we've lost some of those comfortable little places to sit and relax because the new area is more wide open. But then you go to the old section and you see that we've maintained that specialness of the cozy and the Art Deco style.

Fine-tuning the project delayed the library's opening by nearly three months, while architects and construction crews tweaked details of the accessibility of the collection, traffic patterns of visitors, and the artistic flow of the rooms, he said.

It shows.

Like any good tale that appeals to the old and young, the Main Library has painstakingly juxtaposed the innovative and high-tech against the traditional and classic; the whimsical against the utilitarian.

"We are thinking ahead, but we are paying homage to the old building, too," said director Clyde Scoles. "There is a lot of ambiance and majesty here."

In the library's old section, a rare book room features the sophistication of 14-foot high stained birch panels, plush chairs, a climate-controlled book vault, and more than 1,000 books, manuscripts, and other documents, including a handwritten letter from Thomas Jefferson and two letters from General Anthony Wayne. Nearby, a genealogy center and labor-history room can put local residents in closer touch with their more personal past as they rest on one of the dozens of deep-stained, smoothly worn 1940s armchairs that have been rescued from the old library and refurbished.

The Art Deco splendor of the old library has been uncovered, spiffed up, and, in some cases, pulled out of nearly forgotten storage.

About 19,000 square feet of Vitrolite panels - rare, locally manufactured opaque glass pieces - have been cleaned and buffed. They include the hand-cut glass scenes from classic literature in the children's room and the scenes of an emerging Toledo in the original lobby.

Lights from the library's auditorium were pulled out of a warehouse, polished, and retrofitted into more modern reading tables in the popular culture room.

Intricately decorated brushed aluminum fixtures from the 1940s were replicated throughout the library's lighting system. They provide just a few of the Art Deco details that extend through the glass Wintergarden - what used to be 10th Street prior to the overhaul - and into the library's new addition. There, banks of computers, television screens, and seemingly endless rows of newspapers, magazines, and books offer the latest in the New York Stock Exchange and today's news, while around the corner, a multimedia section offers the latest entertainment.

"You can see we go from the very traditional to the somewhat contemporary, to the very modern," Ms. Sanford said.

In fact, throughout the library, 155 computers - and possibly more soon -are available to the public.

The first floor of the new addition extends from Adams Street to Madison Avenue. Lining each end of the room are glassed-in conference rooms available free of charge. Upstairs, the McMaster Learning Center is wired for video conferencing, real-time satellite feed from around the world, and computer access at each of the 275 seats.

Just outside the Learning Center is a roof-top civic plaza offering areas for a break in the sun or a picnic.

Of course, there still may be changes, even after opening day.

"There will be two months at least of a shake-down period," Mr. Oswanski said.

In that time, patrons will be inadvertently testing out the layout and accessibility of the library and, offering feedback about the renovations, he said.

"We might still have some work to do," he said.



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