When one first steps inside the Douglass Branch Library, at 3353 13th St., it’s hard to miss how much brighter it is following renovations. 

And no wonder. The windows have been opened up, and the door was redone to add more glass, so even on a cloudy day like Saturday, Nov. 23, it let in way more sunlight than it used to. The new yellow paint on the wall added to the brightness, while lowering the height of the stacks made the library feel more open. As Chicago Public Library system officials explained during the grand opening ceremony, they wanted to make sure the library seemed inviting and welcoming to the North Lawndale community it serves.

Other improvements include the new YouMedia multimedia teen space, improved children’s area, more study and meeting rooms, upgraded library computers and more programming. And, because Legler Regional Library is closed for renovations, it got extended weekend hours and Sunday hours.

The library originally opened in 1929 and went through extensive redesign in the 1980s. As Ald. Michael Scott (24th) explained during the opening ceremony back in 2017, members of North Lawndale Homeowners Association visited the library and found it wanting — so they lobbied him to do something to improve it. 

“And they said this is not something they can stand for,” the alderman recalled. “And the primary reason why this library is reopening in such a grand fashion is because of them.”

As previously reported by this newspaper, the project was funded with $1 million from Midwest Tax Increment Financing district funds. One million more came from city capital funding, and $150,000 came from Chicago Department of Fleet and Facility Management funds. The library closed for renovations in the fall of 2018 and reopened in Nov. 10. As CPL spokesperson Patrick Molloy said, they tried to get it open not long after Legler Regional Library closed for renovations. This was the same day the Austin and Richard M. Daley branch libraries got extended hours similar to regional libraries — similar to how several South Side libraries got extended hours while Woodson Regional Library was going through its own renovations. 

Once Legler reopens, Douglass will revert to its previous weekday hours, but the Sunday hours will remain. 

Karl Guider, CPL assistant commissioner, explained that, similar to the Austin Branch Library, the skylight was part of the original design, but it was subsequently closed off. As part of the renovations, it was widened, and it will eventually be reopened. The idea, Guider said, was to let as much sunlight in as possible.

“We don’t want anybody to feel like they’re walking into a dungeon,” he said. 

The YouMedia space was built at the southeastern corner of the first floor. It has a 3-D printer, a vinyl cutter, and a small recording studio in a separate room. A smaller study room was added nearby. 

With staff offices moved above the newly built YouMedia and study room, the basement was renovated to include a large meeting room and a small meeting room. They can be reserved by individuals and community organizations, for no charge, on a first-come, first-served basis when they aren’t being used for library activities. The existing basement auditorium with a small stage has been renovated, and the mural on the stage’s back wall has been restored. Molloy said the area by the stairs’ landing was renovated to create a lounge where patrons can sit, plug in their laptops or phones and relax. While the couches are already there, the power outlets still need to be put in — something that will happen in the next few weeks. 

The building has new carpeting, the walls were repainted in brighter colors, and the tables and shelves are intended to be easier to move around. Molloy explained that the idea was to make everything more flexible. To improve accessibility for patrons with mobility issues, the city built a new ramp at the entrance and installed an elevator to connect with the basement. 

Chicago Public Library Commissioner Andrea Telli referred to Douglass as one of West Side’s “three grand dames,” along with Austin and Legler libraries, because of its age, architecture and deep history. She noted that David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, once served as a library page at Douglass. And it was fitting that the branch was named after famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass, Telli said, since it promotes education, which empowers people to reclaim their lives. 

Scott noted he got his very first library card at Douglass and recalled how his grandmother used to take him to the library and read to him — so he was pleased that today’s kids have the same opportunity. He urged everyone to take advantage.

“I often say if you don’t use it, you lose it,” he said. “Advocate to the young people, to families, to use this great resource.”

Rochelle Foster, a member of North Lawndale Homeowers Association, touted the renovations as just one of many steps needed to improve the community.

“We have a long way to go, and it’s just one step closer to building a better North Lawndale for our children,” she said, adding that they couldn’t really expect kids to do well if the library isn’t inspiring them or serving their needs. 

Laverne Hardy, a lifelong North Lawndale resident who has been a librarian in Douglass for 32 years, said, “I love the color, I love the different rooms they added, I love that it’s not closed in anymore. It used to be dark and dreary, and now it’s bright.”

She was particularly happy about improvements geared toward youth.

“A lot of kids come and utilize the library, and they’re here late at night, using the computers,” she said. “If the library wasn’t here, they’d be out on the streets, and I personally would rather see them use the library.”

CONTACT: igorst3@hotmail.com  

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared...