April 17, 2024

Celebrating a New Library for a New Era

By Wendy Greenberg

More than 20 years ago, Princeton residents were enmeshed in discussions about replacing the burgeoning library building, and how to encourage people to spend more time in the library. With the support of the two municipal governments of that time, donations from residents, and the visionary thinking of those involved, the result is the gleaming brick and glass three-story building on Hinds Plaza, named for donors George and Estelle Sands, that opened on April 24, 2004.

The Princeton Public Library will celebrate this milestone, the 20th anniversary of the Sands Library Building, on Wednesday, April 24 with a photo exhibition, a panel of three key individuals in the development of the new building, a tour of public art in the building, and short films about the library, with cake, all at the library. The exhibit starts at 1 p.m., and the other events are from 5 to 9 p.m.

“Many people new to Princeton assume that the library has always had a facility as magnificent as the Sands Library Building,” said Jennifer Podolsky, executive director of the library. “When I was new here, I soon found out that wasn’t the case — that creating a new library for Princeton was actually a decades-long process to build public support, craft a vision, and raise capital. We’re so happy to be welcoming some of the people who made this building a reality.”

The Princeton Public Library opened in 1909, and was originally located at the historic Bainbridge House on Nassau Street, the current home of the Princeton University Art Museum’s Art@Bainbridge. In 1966 the growing library moved to 65 Witherspoon Street in a building designed by Thaddeus Longstreth. By 2002 the library had a collection of 130,000 books in a building designed for 80,000. After deliberations about siting, a new library was built on the same footprint on Witherspoon Street.

“The changes in the building reflected new ways of thinking about libraries,” said Leslie Burger, former Princeton Library executive director and currently interim director of the American Library Association. The former building was starting to show its age, she said. “There was not a lot of places for people to gather. The thinking had been ‘in and out,’ come get your book and bring it back later.”

Burger will participate on a panel with Harry Levine, former library board chair, and architect Nicholas Garrison who led a design team from Hillier Architecture (now Studio Hillier). The panel, moderated by Tim Quinn, the library’s director of marketing and communications, is titled “How We Built This.”

“We had done planning for children and adult programs, and wanted opportunities for people to spend time in the library,” Burger said. “We wanted an engaging space for kids, story hours, crafts, homework, a space designated for teens.”

The library as a community living room was becoming a national trend, but Princeton was ahead of the trend, she said, adding that Princeton served as a national model for the “customer-friendly” library.

But, Burger added, “there were many hurdles that had to be overcome,” including environmental issues during excavation, and fundraising. Hinds Plaza was previously a surface parking lot, the Spring Street garage was later built.

“It was labeled as a gathering community space, to become part of the larger community, outside your home, and that concept took off,” said Burger.

Garrison, now of Garrison Studio in Princeton, noted that the old building was designed at a time when the libraries were for “guarding content,” and “the library wasn’t engaging the neighborhood. That was the catalyst for all that glass,” he said.

The spiral staircase in the Longstreth building was “beloved by many,” Garrison conceded. But the three-story Sands staircase has its own fans. Although the intention was to put a children’s area on the first floor, “by the time we got to the Community Room and loading dock, there was no room for it,” he said. “We tried to create something where a kid would want to go upstairs.” With the nautical staircase theme, “you can sit at the landing and look over the library, like you are in the front of a boat. It really worked. Kids gravitate toward it.”

Levine recalled that “there were two big controversies: Where should it be located and where should people park?” What tipped the decision to set it downtown was the desire to “anchor downtown with active public use,” he said.

“Many people still refer to it as the new building, and it’s 20 years old,” said Levine. “It’s a testament to the design of the building. It was designed to be a lively flexible building when we first designed it 25 years ago. The only thing we can anticipate with library usage is that it is likely to change so it is designed to change…. A flexible building will accommodate change with the least amount of physical alterations.”

Construction of the 55,000-square-foot Sands Library Building began in 2002 to replace a 27,000-square-foot building from the mid-1960s. The total cost of the building was $18 million. The former Princeton Borough and Princeton Township provided $1.92 million and $4.08 million, respectively, in public funding, according to a library press release. The Princeton Public Library Foundation (now the Friends and Foundation of Princeton Public Library) raised $10.3 million in private funds in a capital campaign. The State of New Jersey provided just under $2.2 million in bond funding and the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library provided $100,000 to support technology.

As part of the celebration, the library will host a one-day exhibition, “It Was 20 Years Ago Today,” on April 24 from 1-9 p.m. in the Community Room featuring photos of the opening day by Cie Stroud. The photos “perfectly capture the sense of anticipation and excitement the community felt about the ‘new’ Princeton Public Library,” said Quinn.

In another event, library staff member Anna Lewis will give a tour of Ik-Joong Kang’s Happy World, beginning at 5 p.m. One of the signature pieces of public art in the Sands Library Building, Happy World was a collaboration between the artist and the Princeton community, which contributed artifacts to the mural.

At 6 p.m., library staff will blow out the candles on a cake from Delizioso Bakery+Kitchen and show short films by Lambertville filmmaker Tom Florek about the history, art, and architecture of the library, including the short film, How Do You Say Library? featuring some of the Princeton Public Schools students who contributed world language tiles to Happy World.

The panel discussion with Burger, Levine, and Garrison, which will be streamed on the library’s YouTube channel, will follow the films at 7 p.m.

“I’m looking forward to returning to Princeton to help celebrate this milestone,” said Burger, who served as executive director until 2016. “It has been a joy to watch the Princeton Public Library continually evolve to meet the needs of every community resident. It’s my hope that this library will continue to change, model, and lead the way for others well into the future.”