Mt. Airy residents had a chance to voice their thoughts at a community meeting held to discuss the transformation of the Lovett Memorial Library this week. The library is a prototype branch in the Free Library of Philadelphia's (FLP) 21st Century Libraries Initiative.

Lovett is one of four branches among FLP's 54 sites to partake in the first phase of a pilot program to modernize the city's libraries. The Lovett branch last underwent renovations in 1999.

The community's active and engaged civic partnerships was a key reason the branch was prioritized, said architect, Ignatius Wang, member of the Board of Trustees of the Free Library of Philadelphia.

FLP's criteria for other branches that are part of the first phase -- Logan, Tacony and Lillian Marrero libraries -- included considerations such as poverty levels, illiteracy rates, and existent teen programming deemed vital to the community.

"We didn't pitch Chestnut Hill, so you understand," Wang told attendees.

The FLP was awarded a one-time $82,500 grant from the William Penn Foundation in March to help develop the selected prototypes, according to Tamika Holman of the William Penn Foundation.

Getting a sense of what is possible

Along with taking a look at the library's infrastructure, accessibility issues and needed structural repairs, FLP is looking to transform the space to be more inviting and useful.

Budget limitations and facility issues limit what renovations are possible, according to Joe Benford, chief of the FLP's extensions division. One option is to expand the library 10 feet into the adjacent Lovett Park.

FLP "doesn't want to impinge on landscaping plans that MAUSA is already developing," Benford said. Mt. Airy USA (MAUSA) plans to revitalize the park into a destination green space.

Architect James R. Keller will be handling the design process. Keller has designed libraries worldwide with a focus on designing spaces for children and teens in public places.

Keller presented a slideshow of modern library facilities from around the world, including his own work at nearby Horsham Township Library, to give residents an opportunity to see what kind of trends are being implemented in today's libraries.

Teen drop-in centers, in particular, are becoming a popular notion in modern libraries, explained Keller.

Residents weigh in

Many residents noted that the building's current rain water leaks and faulty air system are causing them to question whether the initiative is worth it.

Others wondered about the continued relevance of books in the age of e-readers.

All those in attendance agreed that the role of a library as a community center was its most essential function.

The majority of attendees said they'd like to see increased staffing and extended library hours over spending money on modernization.

"There are sources of funding available for capital projects that are not available for anything else," Keller explained when questioned about why money would be spent on renovations rather than more service.

Neighbors cited the library's cramped space and unwelcoming entrance as chief hindrances to both function and enjoyment. Uncomfortable seating, bland decor and a lack of designated quiet study areas were other top criticisms. 

Residents said they would like to see more computers and better access to electrical outlets and printers. The library has six computers with time limitations allotted in five-minute increments.

The library's only guard, Steve Clark, noted that security is also a concern. Without security cameras, the two-story facility relies solely on his eyes and ears.

Strong desire to hold on to the past

Most of all, neighbors said they would like to see enhancements that blend contemporary design with Lovett's historical aspects.

The library's original building, which now functions as a meeting room, dates back to 1887 and was erected by Charlotte Lovett Boswick in memory of her brother, Thomas R. Lovett. In 1961, a new addition was built to expand the library.

Friends of the Lovett Memorial Library president and local historian, David Moore, would like to see a prominent place for the Sylvia Shaw Judson sculpture, "Boy Reading," which was gifted to the library years ago. The sculpture now sits nearly hidden from public view in a corner of the library's meeting room.

Neighbors told Keller and Wang that the floor-to-ceiling windows in the front of Lovett's mid-century building are a feature they'd like to see retained. Preservation of the building's Wissahickon schist is also important.

Kelly Gerald, whose family has lived in Mt. Airy for four generations said visiting Lovett is like visiting a relative.

"What I look for in this library is a touch of history," she said.