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Director's Column

PLSJC Director Alan Hall writes a weekly column discussing library and community news, history, and other interesting subjects.

Making the Main Library Accessible

By Alan Hall, Director, PLSJ
Publish Date - Sunday, October 23, 2016

On July 26, 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed into law the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.  This new law would establish that buildings and services could not discriminate due to a disability of the individual.

 

The passage of this legislation was the result of efforts started in 1946 to eliminate physical barriers that stopped disabled veterans from entering public buildings.

 

Prior to World War II, the design of public buildings had drawn their architecture from Greek and Roman classic structures which usually had a long stone stairway entrance leading to an elevated main floor structure.

 

Probably the worst offenders of this new law were Carnegie Libraries constructed between 1890 and 1924.  Every Ohio Carnegie Library has a grand stairway entrance to the front door, and our Carnegie gets the award for the most steps leading from the street to the main floor of the building.

 

Our Carnegie even had a step as part of the threshold of the front door which caused the “tripping” of many library users before it was moved in 2002.

 

Arriving for my job interview in 1983, I thought that surely there had to be another entrance to the building that I had missed!

 

No, there wasn’t and isn’t.  Over the 33 years that I have served as Director of the Library System, I have answered and explained why there is no accessible entrance, and the fact that we are forced to renovate the building only if we do anything to it.

 

Our branch libraries were no better, but new buildings and renovations have made all the branches accessible by 2000; but the classic Main Library remained at the end of two sets of concrete steps.

 

Various consultants and architects passed through our Main Library over the years, usually with raised eyebrows and shocked looks.  “Good grief, what would you do with this building?” was the normal comment on their part.

 

Out-of-towners would say that we should just demolish the whole thing and start over; but that didn’t seem like much of a solution to me and the beloved Carnegie.

 

Changes in the state funding of public libraries beginning in 2003 stymied the discussion as simply operating the library system became more important than doing something to the Main Library, but we kept saving a little money here and there for the day.

 

In 2012, I told the Library Board that we needed to engage an architectural firm to perform a full review of the Main Library building and provide all of the possible options to make the building accessible, knowing the difficulty of that task.

 

We placed a Request-for-Bids in 2014 for architectural services and received bids from 5 companies, selecting Valentour, English, Bodnar & Howell, Inc. of Pittsburgh to perform the review services based on their firm’s experience and background.

 

They studied the building from all aspects and angles, and returned with 6 options.  The biggest hurdle is that the building has no street-level entrance or access point.

 

The options were presented to the staff and Library Board by Steubenville-native Thomas C. Stanko, an architect with VEBH, Inc.

 

A further consideration is the fact that the Main Library building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places which restricts changes to some parts of the 1902 structure.

 

Two options were to construct access ramps to the front of the building, one option was a new entrance and stair tower to the south rear, one option was to construct a new entrance on Slack Street in the rear, and two more options combined various aspects of the second group of options.

 

It also became apparent that besides making the building accessible, it would be necessary to bring other aspects of the building up to current Building Codes such as restrooms, hallways, stairways and the systems that serve those facilities.

 

It also became clear that we needed to develop a Master Plan for the whole building to allow it to serve the public well into the future.

 

The complex issue of making the Main Library accessible was found to be more complex than ever imagined, and a lot of work would be involved.