For the past six months, Slidell public library patrons have been borrowing books, DVDS and other materials from temporary quarters in a Robert Boulevard strip mall while the permanent library building down the road was undergoing a $1 million overhaul.
They’ll finally see the results next week, when the library reopens its doors — new automatic sliding ones — to the public starting Monday.
Donald Westmoreland, director of the St. Tammany Parish Library system, said he views the work as the second phase of rehabilitation for the 25-year-old building. The library had been plagued by leaks since it first opened, he said, the result of a design that didn’t work well for the area and poor construction. For years, books shared space with buckets when it rained, he said.
About three years ago, the gutters were reworked and a new membrane was installed to address roof problems. That allowed the library to finally replace dank carpeting and, at the same time, to refurbish its bathrooms. That work was paid for with a settlement of just over $200,000 from a lawsuit over the building’s problems, he said.
Now, the library has replaced an aging air-conditioning system that created cold and hot spots in the 22,000-square-foot building.
The work, which began in February, also eliminated another potential source of leaks: pipes in the roof that were drained and won’t be used again.
Insulation that had been destroyed by leaks was replaced, as were the ceiling tiles. The interior also got a fresh coat of paint.
The most noticeable change is new lighting that transforms what had been a dim interior. All the fixtures have been replaced, creating more efficient lighting.
Branch Manager Nancy Little pointed to woodwork, including the check-out desk, which until now had been hidden in the gloom.
The fixtures also can be moved, which will prevent a problem that arose when shelving was moved and the lighting no longer lined up.
The stacks now have directional lighting that makes titles on the book spines much easier to see, spokesman Shellie Savoy said.
Next, Westmoreland has his eye on enlarging parking at the popular branch and perhaps adding another meeting room at some point, he said.
Those plans depend on whether the St. Tammany Parish Council will allow the library system, which now gets 5.35 mills of property tax, to receive the full 6.29 mills authorized by voters. The additional .94 mills would generate about $1.5 million that would be used for capital expenditures, Westmoreland said.
The Slidell branch is the busiest in the parish, accounting for about a third of the system’s business — about 400,000 people per year, Westmoreland said.
He describes it as a large branch library that actually functions as a regional library. If such a library were being built today, it would be 50 percent larger, he said.
The move to temporary quarters for the past six months did result in reduced usage, but Little said the branch still had about two-thirds of its normal traffic, in a location that was much smaller, just 4,000 square feet.
The library was able to host its usual summer programming despite the tighter quarters, in part because the city government made the city auditorium available for larger events, such as a magic show.
Much of the library’s collection, 123,000 items, remained in place during the rehab, although the most popular items, including all entertainment DVDs, were moved into the temporary library, Little said.
The system borrowed books from other branches or rented materials to fill its shelves.
Because of that, the library will be able to move items back to the permanent building in stages as it gets ready to resume regular hours of 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
A ribbon-cutting ceremony is scheduled for 11 a.m. Sept. 11, and a grand reopening celebration will be held at the library.
Patrons have been “patient and kind’’ in waiting for the reopening, Savoy said. But there’s no question they are ready to return.
“Every person who comes through the door asks us when,” Little said.
Editor’s note: This story was changed on July 29 to correct an error in the headline.
Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter at @spagonesadvocat.