Officials top off next step in Miller library's transformation

Ceremony marks placing of last beam at new site

December 04, 2010|By Janene Holzberg, Special to The Baltimore Sun

With the first chill of the season gripping a small crowd waiting outside in 26-degree weather, a 150-foot crane finally scooped up a decorated beam to "top off" the county library's Charles E. Miller Branch and Historical Center under construction.

"This is the momentous occasion when the last beam rises up and clicks into place," said Valerie J. Gross, library president and CEO, to the gathering clustered Thursday morning at the entrance to the site.

The 20-foot length of steel wore a coat of white paint to better highlight the signatures of guests, both prominent and not-so-prominent, as they autographed it using oversized black markers. The beam was then lifted into the mostly cloudy sky and swung into place as the high point of the topping-off ceremony, a celebration with roots in Scandinavian superstition.

The event celebrates reaching the pinnacle of a building in a bid for good luck, Gross said.

A 4-foot pine tree sprouted from a cylinder welded to the center of the beam amid the flags of the United States, Maryland, Howard County and Howard County Library. The evergreen is a nod to an ancient custom of appeasing the tree-dwelling gods that new buildings displace, a library representative said.

The $29.7 million library and new home of the Howard County Historical Society is still slated to open in December 2011. At 63,000 square feet, it will be nearly three times the size of the existing Miller branch next door, just east of the construction site off Frederick Road and midway between St. John's and Centennial lanes.

The current building will become the library's administrative offices in the second phase of the project, which is expected to be completed sometime in fiscal year 2013.

Moving the administrative offices from the Central and East Columbia branches will free up 16,000 square feet for classrooms, meeting rooms and study areas, as well as add parking spaces at both locations, said Christie Lassen, director of public relations.

As a news-service helicopter hovered loudly above the scene shooting video and bulldozers lumbered noisily behind fencing, 75 people, most with ties to the library or county government, relished the moment — and appreciated the speaker system.

Calling the education of library patrons "critically important" to the county, Gross said the new structure will handle the needs of a wide customer base, from "the very, very young to the very, very wise."

County Executive Ken Ulman simply called the project "progress," adding that the new library will be a building "that you all know is going to be spectacular."

For some in the audience, warm memories seemed almost enough to allow them to give a cold shoulder to winter's early appearance.

Paul Miller, son of the man for whom the current and future library branches are named, took a good, hard look at all the hustle and bustle taking place on a portion of the 435-acre parcel that once was his family's farm.

"This is a dream of our family's, to make good use of the land," he said, recalling how cows and other animals once roamed the property.

Angie Boyter, a longtime library supporter with her husband, David, said the couple has lived nearby on MacAlpine Road for 44 years and remembers the last Miller expansion, back in the 1980s.

"Even though we've been to a lot of these [ceremonies], we've been excited for a very long time about this," she said, especially since she's read recently that some cities are repurposing libraries as more people turn to digitalized versions of books.

Edward Kuespert, a book lover and collector who lives 11/2 miles from the library, said he came to the ceremony because he's a 30-year patron of the Miller branch who looks forward to "a lot more room and an even more pleasant experience."

He said his 800-volume collection is comprised of books on military history, amateur radio, stamp collecting and photography, all interests that the library helps him indulge further.

In the three-year period ending with fiscal year 2010, the number of borrowed items at the Miller branch climbed steadily from about 1.4 million to nearly 1.8 million, said Lassen, making that location's circulation the highest among Howard County branches.

The number of visits jumped from 562,000 to nearly 700,000 during the same time.

These statistics closely mimic those of the Central Branch, even though that location is more than twice Miller's size at 50,000 square feet and already stocks nearly 250,000 items, she said.

Central logged almost identical numbers of borrowed items, increasing from 1.5 million to nearly 1.8 million, she said, but the number of visits to the main location dropped from 688,000 to 546,000.

The planned collection size for the new building is about 243,000 items, which represents a 53 percent increase over the current collection, she said.

"And it's entirely possible that visits will reach 1 million annually," Lassen said.

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