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Providence Public Library undertakes renovations

Renovations aim to make PPL more accessible, better suited to serve 21st century public

Beginning next week, the Providence Public Library will launch a $25 million renovation intended to transform its 84,000 square foot Empire Street building into a modern, capacious facility capable of housing the library’s vast number of unique collections and education programs.

The PPL has big plans for its new renovation, which is due to be completed in the spring of 2020. The library was last renovated in 1987, rendering it “very much due for an upgrade,” according to Jack Martin, executive director of PPL. It was designed in 1953, when libraries primarily served as book repositories. The PPL needs a building that can house its educational programs and workforce development initiatives which teach community members literacy, coding, data navigation and other marketable skills, explained PPL marketing and communications director Tonia Mason. Presently, it lacks the proper resources and facilities.

Through grants procured from the state of Rhode Island, money raised from the capital campaign “Think Again” and a generous donation of $1 million from philanthropist Rosalyn Sinclair, the PPL plans to re-work old spaces and create new ones. The library intends to install glass walls, six basketball court-sized floors of materials and a 3,000-foot education lab on the ground floor, all of which will be visible “right when (patrons) walk in,” Martin said. The library will also see the additions of a children’s room, a teen space and new study areas for college students, as well as a museum-quality exhibition space and a “Special Collections Suite” for researchers and the general public.

The renovations will encompass increased accessibility measures, which will serve to “adapt the (library) to the needs of 21st-century patrons,” according to an article published in the Providence Journal about the renovations.

“(The library) will no longer be an imposing gray monster on Empire Street,” Martin said. “Its limestone will be gleaming.”

According to Martin, the library serves around 160,000 patrons annually from all over the state of Rhode Island. It houses the Statewide Reference Resource Center — an electronic resource database that every person in Rhode Island has access to with a library card. It has collections on a vast number of topics, from whaling to the Civil War to the history of typography, and it recently acquired the AS220 collection, focused on the history of AS220 as a Providence-based arts organization, which is “very funky and cool” according to Martin. The library is perhaps most proud of its 90-year catalog of the Providence Journal, which spans from 1900 to 1990 and is searchable by subject.

Last week, PPL hosted an online auction of the furnishings from the old building, which raked in just over $14,000 — all of which will go toward the renovation. Among the items auctioned off were mini chandeliers, magazine stands and a whole room of oscillating fans.

“Sure, one oscillating fan isn’t very cool,” said Martin. “But a room of them is very neat.”

According to Mason, the most popular items were the old card catalogs, which each fetched a few hundred dollars.

“Rhode Islanders have a real nostalgia for the PPL,” Martin said. “We have stories of people whose parents proposed here. People want to own a piece of the history.”

While the renovations are underway, the library will be temporarily relocated to a smaller space termed the Rhode Island Room, which is accessible through the library’s Washington Street entrance. There will be computers, workspaces and a boutique selection of books specially curated by the library’s staff.

“We’re going to have an awesome place at the heart of the city that will have all the facilities and capabilities to provide the types of services that we’ve been providing,” Mason said. “We’ll be able to have more of them, and more opportunities for people to come in and access our collections.” 

“I can’t wait to stand at the bottom of the Grand Staircase and welcome everybody,” Martin said.


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