Opening a new chapter

Children's Library -- oldest public kids' library in the nation -- to re-open Sept. 29 with expanded space, collection

A dream is about to come true for Katy Obringer, a retired librarian who was a fixture at Palo Alto's Children's Library for 22 years.

On Saturday, Sept. 29, the newly renovated Children's Library on Harriet Street will reopen after nearly two years of construction.

Obringer worked for years on expansion plans for the 67-year-old facility -- the oldest free-standing children's library in the country -- before retiring in 2003. She has been asked back to read at the first story time after the library reopens, she said.

Children's Library understandably holds a special place in her heart.

"It was not a hush-hush kind of place. The children could talk and cry. They could be themselves," she said.

"What makes it different is the staff. They are all dedicated children's librarians. They could turn (kids) on to books in a way others couldn't.

"I would do an interview with children to see what they were interested in and feed books into their little agenda. The next week, they would be back asking for more."

The colorful, expanded library is nearly double in size, with two new wings. It features eight computers, three self-check-out stations, a wavy sofa, a reading nook and separate rooms for very young and school-age children.

But the star of the new library will be the long-archived collection of 35,000 children's books, from classic tales by Beatrix Potter to foreign-language books in Spanish, Mandarin and Russian. Many were not previously accessible, according to librarians who have spent weeks putting in finishing touches and arranging the books and materials.

A golden lemur sculpture, a mural of book-reading creatures hanging from a magical tree and a pirate ship laden with treasure will also greet children when they return to the library.

The old carousel horse by artist Francesca Thoman has been put out to pasture. But the lemur, also by Thoman, has taken its place. The cozy fireplace remains, with its original tiles of old nursery-rhyme friends: Hey-Diddle-Diddle, Humpty Dumpty and Old King Cole. And there are two refurbished 1940s chairs, there when the library was brand new.

The new wings, one housing staff offices and equipment and the other containing a new room designed especially for preschool-age children, follow the historic architectural design.

The old library remains the heart of the new facility, but changes are more than cosmetic: It is now wheelchair accessible and has a new roof, new foundation and electrical system, and state-of-the-art heating and cooling. It is also earthquake retrofitted; colorfully painted beams at the room's center camouflage massive steel that help make the structure quake safe.

Even the restrooms reflect the merging of past and present, with wheelchair-accessible booths and a tiny child-sized toilet. Tiles -- created from archived photos of readings, gatherings and other events from the library's past -- dot the white tile walls.

The most challenging aspects of the project were satisfying the expectations of all stakeholders in the community, according to City Project Engineer Debra Jacobs.

The Children's Library is a historic structure, and many preservationists didn't want to lose the historic elements, she said. The project was also limited by how far it could be built out and still remain a single-story structure. Adding disability-access-compliant restrooms was a challenge because they took up so much room. They were moved from the original building to the new main wing, Jacobs said.

The library has never been solely about books, Obringer said.

"I think it was the relationships with the children and the parents and the teachers that was the most fun for me," she said.

Some of those friendships endured. Last month Obringer attended the wedding of a woman who had once been a regular at the library.

That woman, Elizabeth Schmidt, is now an actress in Los Angeles.

"My mom started going there when I was 1 1/2. I started reading at 2 1/2 and going on a frequent basis. I have very fond memories of going to the story times," she said.

Obringer's theatrics instilled a love of acting in Schmidt, she added.

"The way Katy read the stories was magical. Katy was very dynamic. ... She brought the stories to life," Schmidt said.

"I thought she was the absolute neatest thing. At 3 or 4, I decided on a whim -- without asking my mother -- to ask her to come over to my house for tea. She's one of the dearest family friends."

Remembering the many hours she spent at the Children's Library, Schmidt said she has an appreciation for what a library just for children offers a young child.

"I think it's imagining my 3-year-old self going to an adult library. I didn't see any books for me. There were no picture books out, no displays for children.

"I loved the summer reading series. I loved getting the prizes and doing the projects. It's where the shelves of books were my size and were appealing to me and housed in a place that was just for me. It's not just a portion like in an adult library," she said.

In preparation for the opening, librarians were busily hauling boxes of books out of storage and from their temporary home in the Main Library on a recent hot afternoon -- a mission of great satisfaction.

Melinda Wing, supervising librarian and manager of the Children's Library and Youth Services, has waited for this day since 1984, when she first worked at the Children's Library.

"The most frustrating thing for me is that we didn't have room for books and programs. So many things were worn and old," she said.

Now, many books previously inaccessible due to lack of space will be displayed face-out to attract children, Palo Alto Library Director Diane Jennings said.

As many as 300 children attend story hours. During the last full year of story hours in 2004, there were 129,022 visits, Jennings said.

The demand for space was evident recently during story time for preschool-age children at the College Terrace Library. The children's room was packed with more than 30 adults and children on a Wednesday morning.

Children hugged stuffed animals and sucked thumbs as librarian Melissa Morwood read "No More Cookies!" and "Ella the Elephant." Arms stretched and waved and feet stomped during the movement portion of the program, which was interspersed with rhymes and songs.

"I grew up here and went to the Children's Library in the '70s," said Kirsten Essenmacher, who attended story time with her 4-year-old daughter, Stella. Mother and daughter live near the Children's Library and are excited by the reopening.

"I can't wait for the parade. I want to ride my pink bike in the parade so much," Stella said. "I like to see the construction. My dad and I look at it when we go to the plays (at nearby Children's Theatre)."

Sandy George and her granddaughter, Lizzie Holder, 3, moved to Palo Alto recently and have never been in the Children's Library. They didn't know about it but are looking forward to going there, since Lizzie loves to read and they attend all of the story hours, George said.

The Children's Library will have a special "early learning" computer in the new wing's Tree Top Room for kids such as Lizzie, with more than 30 programs geared toward preschool children, Wing said.

The Tree Top Room will house picture books for preschool-age children. A colorful tree mural by Jeff Petersen is located at the far end of the room. Painted leaves and branches flow across the walls and ceiling, creating a space under which children can sit and read or crawl and explore, immersing themselves beneath the fanciful world of creatures that hang from the tree -- holding books.

Children who like the outdoors can travel between the Tree Top Room and the Secret Garden when the sliding glass doors are opened. On rainy days, they can enjoy the view from inside while perched on a whimsical wavy couch created by artist Darin Wacs -- known locally for her colorful dragon sign for the Palo Alto Junior Museum and Zoo. She has also created whimsical signage for the front of the library and for the outside entrance to the Secret Garden, Jennings said.

The garden will also contain a ceramic fountain by Dannenbeck Studios and new trees to shade the back portion of the building, she said.

An event-filled day is planned for the library's reopening.

At 10 a.m. a wagon parade of books, featuring the "Library Fairy," will depart from the Main Library at 1214 Newell Road, where the books have been available during the lengthy rebuilding, and wend its way to the Children's Library at 1276 Harriet St., behind the Lucie Stern Community Center.

A ribbon-cutting ceremony will feature Palo Alto Mayor Yoriko Kishimoto and other city dignitaries. A new mural will be unveiled.

Dave Keane, author and illustrator of "Joe Sherlock, Kid Detective," will discuss his book.

Palo Alto native and library historian Tom Wyman will reminisce about visiting the library when it first opened in 1940.

Music and refreshments will be served in the Secret Garden and kids' activities will take place throughout the day.


Like this comment
Posted by Native Girl
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 18, 2007 at 6:22 pm

This will be a fabulous and long awaited event!

It will be wonderful to have Katy Obringer back to read aloud the first story.

Our family has used the library for nearly 50 years, and we will now be able to enjoy the newly remodeled library with our daughter.

Thank you to everyone involved in making the remodel possible, and helping to order and organize the books, and the multitude of other details involved in making this project a miracle come true.

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