“At the end of the day, we’re supporting the quality of people’s lives with these projects,” says Frank Dittenhafer of Murphy & Dittenhafer Architects.
When it comes to your local library, Murphy & Dittenhafer Architects likes to think outside the books.
The architectural firm has completed redesigns of more than a half-dozen community libraries in both Pennsylvania and Maryland, all centered on either updating old buildings or construction of new buildings - and shifting the focus to accommodate new media and social trends.
But the approach is by no means formulaic, said Frank Dittenhafer, principal at Murphy & Dittenhafer Architects. Rather, each local library should be just that – local – with all the nuance and detail that make a community special.
“We try to find what’s unique, the identity of each place,” he said. “We want buildings that say to people, ‘Come here, gather here, and let’s all move forward together.’”
‘Not your grandfather’s library’
The four library projects that Murphy and Dittenhafer Architects staff have worked on in Western Maryland – in Boonsboro, Hancock, Smithsburg and South Cumberland – have included both renovation work and new construction. The common thread is culling the details that are right for each community.
“Our approach is to really understand each site and to make sure it’s nestled comfortably within the surrounding area,” Dittenhafer said.
Renovation work usually involves gutting an old space with limited existing features for users and poor lighting. New construction means considering sighting, parking, context, and more. But, in both cases, Murphy & Dittenhafer staff today focuses on incorporating technology, and on creating a community hub.
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“This is not your grandfather’s library anymore, where everyone just sits and reads,” said architect Todd Grove. “Today, these need to be places where people connect with one another in various ways.”
So, Murphy & Dittenhafer Architects not only adds banks of computers but little things, too, like softer chairs complete with phone chargers. Redesigns include community rooms for meetings, seminars, and programs. And, the children’s areas are made brighter and more inviting for story time.
In South Cumberland, Grove and his team even created a one-of-a-kind colored-glass partition, hoping to spark young imaginations.
“During the design phase, Todd Grove took a long list of wants, needs and desires and bundled it together to envision this design,” said John Taube, Allegany County Library System executive director. “But, the thing to note is that he did it within the budget, and with the funding we had secured.”
A vision of success
Community starts with communication, so the team at Murphy & Dittenhafer begins each library project by listening.
What is the economic structure of the area? How many computer stations do administrators think will be needed? What do people look for first when they come in the door?
From there, it’s a matter of efficiently synthesizing that information – then adding that little extra design effort and thought that is the essence of Murphy & Dittenhafer Architects.
“We pull all of the information together and do the best we can to make sure everyone gets what they want,” Grove said. “If we can do that, and if we can maximize the potential of the place, then the project will be a success.”
It’s a process that’s played out in libraries across communities in two states. And the results seem to speak for themselves.
“Todd and the team at M&D came out of the gate quickly with a vision,” said Robert Slocum, Washington County, Maryland administrator. “Everyone – yes, everyone – I have heard from is happy with Todd’s work.”
‘The definition of community’
This month, more than 150 children will rush into a small-town library in Western Maryland, eager to hear a good story.
Inside that same site, locals will log more than 1,000 public computer sessions, looking for work and waiting for word. In an area in which 20 percent of residents live below the federal poverty line, 2,700 people will attend some 200 programs and seminars this year to connect with their community.
At local libraries, lives will be bettered.
That’s extremely rewarding, Dittenhafer said. Beyond the books, M&D looks at its library projects as a chance to place the future a little more within reach for everyone, and to bring people together.
It’s the chance, he said, to make a difference.
“At the end of the day, we’re supporting the quality of people’s lives with these projects,” Dittenhafer said. “We’re helping them to come together and to find an identity, and I think really that’s the definition of community.”