Just like a good book, Rockford Public Library’s (RPL) future is unfolding one chapter at a time as it celebrates its 150th birthday this year and looks forward to the Fall 2023 opening of a brand-new main building at the historic location, 215 N. Wyman St.
The clean-up of contaminated soil that prompted the razing of the old main library is completed and groundbreaking for the new building took place Oct. 20.
“I feel very good about the future,” says RPL Executive Director Lynn Stainbrook. “I think we’re moving into a new role for the library and will become even more vital to the community.”
The library board hosted many ‘envisioning’ sessions with the public. Local history, the children’s area, new releases and other collections are among top priorities, along with making good use of the riverfront location.
The $33 million project includes a three-story, 66,000-square-foot building with many floor-to-ceiling windows and covered (not underground) parking on the street level for 20 cars, and a drive-up area to return books or pick up ‘on hold’ materials. More parking in the form of city lots and a couple parking ramps exist nearby.
The architects for the project are Engberg Architects of Milwaukee, Wis., who have designed more than 180 libraries, in partnership with Rockford’s award-winning Gary Anderson Architects of Studio GWA.
The new library will be about 20,000 square feet smaller than the old one, but the space will be used more efficiently, Stainbrook says.
“The older building had been added onto so many times, there was a lot of wasted space, and some things we chose not to duplicate,” she says. “There will be no auditorium in the new library because we have one at our Nordlof Center, across the street, at 118 N. Main St.
“There will be lots of landscaping and walking paths for bicycles and pedestrians. The space once used for parking will be much more people-friendly and centered around the beauty and enjoyment of the river,” she says.
The library is working with the Rockford Park District to form a cohesive riverfront with Davis Park to the south.
The first floor will be devoted to staff offices, Friends of the Library bookstore, a children’s area, and a section for newly released books and audio-visual materials. The second floor will include fiction and non-fiction books, a teen and gaming area, a reading room with windows overlooking the river, multi-purpose rooms, and a patio off the Maker Lab, a room that contains tools, machines and other components for people to create or work on projects.
Stainbrook says the Maker Lab was introduced at the Hart Interim Library, 214 N. Church St., and is popular in many libraries today, as a way to reach people who learn better by doing things hands-on.
“At one time, libraries were thought of as ‘the people’s university,’ and all the learning came from books. The library of the future is about meeting the needs of all kinds of learners, which includes printed books, digital books and e-books, as well as other resources,” she says.
The third floor will house the local history collection, staff work areas, three meeting rooms that can also become one large space, and a deck overlooking the river.
The original Wyman Street library opened to the public in 1902, built on land once owned by Rockford Gas, Light and Coke, which operated a manufactured gas plant (MGP) there from 1856 to 1898. The byproducts of MGP operations are typically coal tar, purifier waste and petroleum products.
In the 1960s, ComEd acquired Rockford Gas, Light and Coke and, in 2010, conducted an environmental study of the library site, in cooperation with the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. Contamination in the soil and groundwater was found under the library, which led to the decision to demolish the building and clean up the contamination. ComEd is paying for the entire remediation and rebuilding project, with a portion of ComEd customer utility bills going toward remediation projects throughout the state, Stainbrook explains.
The main library closed in November 2017 and moved to the interim location in December 2017.
Recycling and reusing as much of the building as possible was important to both ComEd and the library.
Less than 7% of the materials ended up in the landfill after a public auction was held to allow businesses and individuals to buy lights, wall paneling, machinery and other items. All proceeds of the sale went to the Rockford Public Library Foundation. ❚