Library assistant Wendy Purdy arranges books on the new shelving in the renovated children’s section of Bluffton Branch Library. PHOTOS BY GWYNETH J. SAUNDERS

Bluffton’s passionate library patrons will be happy today because the Phase 1 renovations are finished and the doors are open. Following today’s 9 a.m. ribbon cutting, everyone who has been asking “When will it be finished?” will be able to see the results of the past 10 months of work.

The bright airiness of the gallery greets patrons when they enter from the lobby through the double glass doors. The new flooring now matches that in the large meeting room, and a new color scheme refreshes the most active area where the computers, check-out counters, chairs and the Friends of the Library section reside.

The renovation-era “pop-up” library temporarily housed in the building’s large public meeting room will melt into the stacks as if it never happened.

“What you’ll probably notice first is we have glassed in everything on this [left] side,” said Beaufort County Library Director Amanda Dickman as she walked through the building.

The Friends of the Library Corner, just inside the doors, has new shelving and arrangements. The children’s section has moved, and in its place is the adult section with fiction, movies, audio books, new books, large print books, magazines, and newspapers.

Past the adult section along the gallery wall are built-in shelves that will house new books.

“The biggest change in this renovation is doubling the size available to children’s services, and giving them this dedicated program room. Before, they were competing with community groups and library programs for that large meeting room up front. Now they have their own space,” Dickman said. “We’ve been the proud home of an art collection of colorful papier maché animal heads from local middle school art classes from years ago, and they now take up residence in this creative space.”

Activities in the new space will include story time, performances, crafts, and whatever children programs are developed. All of the tables have wheels on one end and stoppers on the other so the tables don’t move away from the children as they sit.

“My favorite thing is in picking out new furniture. We wanted it to be contemporary but also tied to our community and reflective of the Lowcountry feel, so we picked white shelves,” Dickman said.

The new shelving sections are curved and on wheels so they can be easily rearranged as needed. “If you could see it from above,” Dickman said, “you’ll see it’s kind of a pinwheel, so kids can move along here similar to waves and water.”

The new shelves are filled with picture books, easy readers, chapter books and nonfiction. Between some of the shelves are comfortable benches for those youngsters who want to sit a minute and look at their selections.

Independent of the shelves are a number of “mushrooms,” sturdy, stable seats that can be moved around the room as needed. A section of the children’s area will have a space for Spanish language books, which are being covered by a grant.

Bluffton Branch Manager Kitti McKean is thrilled with the results.

“My favorite part of the renovation was it’s just so light and bright and open. I love the space for the children with a dedicated program meeting space. I love that we have three small meeting rooms as well as our large meeting room, because so much of what people use the library for is getting together,” she said, while sitting in the new desk in the children’s section. McKean said she also loves the new “tech” chairs, where visitors can sit with their electronic devices plugged into the integrated USB port.

Dickman wasn’t the only one who kept getting questions about when would the library be available to the public.

“I am happy that we can open it again. People have been coming, and they’ve been hanging out in the lobby. They’ve had to sit out on the porch and use the tables. So they’re going to be able to come in again and use the whole space, and everybody’s so excited about it, the patrons are so excited about it,” said McKean.

Preparation for construction began March 1, 2021, and the library’s entryway and large meeting room were staged as a “miniature pop-up” library to continue providing library resources and services to the community during the renovation project. 

In this designated space, the library provided shelves of books available for browsing and check out, as well as a pick-up station for book on hold. Public computers, a fax/scanner and copy machine, and self-checkout unit were also available.

“We were able to offer all of the services and access to public computers, reference services, curb-side pickup up – the whole suite of things we offered. We did not want to stop that. We did not stop that at any point, so we have not ever fully closed the library,” said Dickman. “We just had a selected number of things available. All of our new books were able to be in the large meeting room and were never stored. A portion of our children’s collection was never stored. And then we housed everything in our nonfiction section so that if somebody requested it we could go get it.”

She added that the new color scheme, shelving, and furniture updated the Bluffton Branch Library while also “providing durability, flexible use, and positioning the library to adapt to future developments in providing library services to the community.”

That is one of the reasons nearly everything is on wheels. For example, in the adult fiction space all of the bookcases are on wheels.

“If for some reason we needed to use this space for something, we can wheel these aside, and we have a nice square space to do something, maybe be even for voting days,” Dickman said.

A well-used and integral part of the community, Bluffton Library was the most used of the county’s five locations prior to the renovation, and Dickman said it has held second place even with the pop-up.

“Prior to COVID-19 closures from March to October 2020, the Bluffton Branch Library welcomed approximately 14,000 guests per month. During the renovation from this past March until today, Bluffton welcomed approximately 6,000 guests per month,” she said. Since introducing curbside pickup during the COVID-19 closures, the branch averaged 150 curbside deliveries per month. Dickman anticipates the branch will return to pre-renovation usage once immediately following today’s ribbon cutting.

The renovations are Phase 1 of a two-phase plan. Dickman said the changes were designed as a response to usage, community feedback, focus groups, surveys, and a space study conducted in 2019. Approximately 60% of the Bluffton Branch Library was updated. Part of the renovations included repurposing a space that existed between the children’s and adult section to give staff a one-shot office rather than segmented so they are all together, Dickman said. This phase of renovation – including design, architecture and engineering, construction, and furnishing – had an approved budget of $844,000.

“What we haven’t addressed are some other staffing reconfigurations we need to make so we can accommodate staff, especially in the age of COVID. And then also our nonfiction and our quieter spaces. That’s Phase 2,” she said. “The teen area will be relocated and enhanced. The teens will now find their section located in the nonfiction area away from the children’s section, and both areas will be renovated at a future time.”

To no one’s surprise, there were a few supply chain challenges, but as the final pieces of furniture arrived, Dickman was able to set the date for the reopening.

“We’re happy to get it back, fully available to the public, as they are happy to get it back. We were very blessed by county council and Beaufort county personnel that this project was prioritized and went on fully without a hitch,” Dickman said. “A couple of supply chain things (happened) that were beyond our control, but really it was seamless project from start to finish. I can’t say enough about that.”

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.