The new library, which opened in October 2018, is ‘so much more than a place to go get a book,’ says Todd Grove of Murphy & Dittenhafer Architects.

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When the Tonoloway Creek flooded one too many times, the residents of Hancock, Maryland, fled to higher ground. But they were running out of space. They were boxed in. And something didn’t smell right. 

That, in a nutshell, is the story of the former Hancock Veterans Memorial Library, erected in the 1960s near the creek in Widmeyer Park. In 1997, the Washington County Library System moved the building uphill.  

It no longer flooded, but the basic box structure lacked amenities and room. And perhaps because of past flooding, some library users said the building gave off an odor. 

In 2014, the library system called on Murphy & Dittenhafer Architects of Baltimore and York, Pennsylvania, to perform a concept study for a new library. Beyond the old building’s environmental issues, it was not an inviting place, says Todd Grove, the architect who led the design for the new library that serves the town of about 1,500 residents.  

“It was built when libraries were constructed as a place for books,” he says. “Readers and users were really secondary.”  

Coming up with options 

Officials wanted the park to remain the library’s home, close to the historical Chesapeake & Ohio Canal towpath and the Western Maryland Rail Trail.   

“Because that part of western Maryland is rather hilly, there was only one primary spot a building like this could be located and not be in a steeply sloped area of the park,” Grove explains. “We looked at different ways to do that, where to enter, the size and shape of the building. We developed several concepts and an approximate budget cost to move the project forward.” 

The necessary approvals and fundraising for the new building were completed in 2017, and the 8,600-square-foot library, about double the size of the old building, opened in October 2018.  

But before that could happen, M&D architect Bruce Johnson was at the park to oversee the construction phase, coordinating site, structural, mechanical and electrical aspects. 

Johnson, who has worked on other library projects for Murphy & Dittenhafer also assisted the local codes officials, who check every aspect of construction that has to do with public safety and then grant a project the final approval.  

The town’s ‘living room’ 

Grove notes that M&D’s design reflects the needs of the community. 

“With these branch libraries in these wonderful, small communities, you hear, ‘It’s not your grandfather’s library,’” he says. “They’re no longer perfectly quiet places.” 

Computers and work stations in an open layout have replaced many book shelves, Grove notes, because more material is available online. A community room offers meeting space, even when the library is closed, for literary or quilting groups – “just folks getting together,” Johnson says. 

“It’s also about getting youth interested in reading and using the library,” Grove adds. “So, there’s an emphasis on children’s spaces, young adult spaces. It also becomes a bit of a living room for the town … to meet other friends.” 

Matching design to location 

New libraries often feature large expanses of glass and a variety of seating areas in a welcoming setting. Johnson says the library fits well in the park, with an interior that is “light and airy, with lots of windows, kind of a rustic feel with laminated wood ceilings and columns.” 

Grove has been the Project Architect for every library that Murphy & Dittenhafer has designed. He says that while all branch libraries have similar needs, location makes each one unique. 

“How the library adapts to its site is what differs, where the sun is, the slope of the land, where there is glass, where there isn’t,” he points out. 

A library in an urban setting likely would have a different appearance than the Hancock library, whose large windows bring in natural light and offer views of the park.  

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The park, with pavilions, playgrounds, athletic fields, and a swimming pool, is in transition, Johnson notes, with a new, cleaner appearance and banners that recognize veterans from the Hancock area. It is the home of the town’s Veterans War Memorial, which lists the names of about 900 service men and women from the Civil War through the Persian Gulf War. 

The new Veterans Memorial Library, which opened in October 2018, has a starring role in that transition. 

“These communities don’t get much attention, new projects, upgraded facilities,” Grove says. “To have a well-done, wonderful library in the community is a really big deal to them.” 

For many residents, he adds, the new library provides their computer connectivity to the world. 

“It is so much more than a place to go get a book,” he says.