You Are Invited to the “New” Darlington Branch Open House
Written by Jimmie Epling   

You Are Invited to the

“New” Darlington Branch Open House

by Jimmie Epling

You are invited to an open house for the “New” Darlington Branch of the Darlington County Library System on Saturday, July 25th from 12-2 p.m.!  The Friends of the Darlington Branch, “Cool Librarian” Branch Manager Gwen Robinson, and staff want you to drop by to see all the changes that have taken place in the building.  If you haven’t stopped by the Branch in a while, this is the perfect time.  And did I mention there will be hotdogs for the first 100 visitors and door prizes.

Darlington Branch was built in 1988.  Located in a region of Darlington dedicated to the arts and learning, our beautiful building complimented the surrounding buildings and became the headquarters for the newly formed library system.  The architectural firm of Craig, Gaulden, and Davis’ design featured a central public area forming a “T”.  The entrance was placed at the base of the “T”.  When you entered, the high vaulted ceilings and huge arched windows gave you a sense of walking into a cathedral.  It was a show piece for the community.

As the years passed, there came a new Hartsville Branch and expansion, a new Lamar Branch and two expansions, and a new Society Hill Branch.  Through it all, Darlington Branch received only an occasional touch up, such as new carpet or paint in the children’s area.  The passage of time was clearly showing on the Darlington Branch when I arrived nearly three years ago. 

When I entered Darlington Branch as a “secret shopper” before my interview, I noticed the building’s wallpapered walls in not a good way.  When it was built, I later learned, all the walls were papered.  The heavy, off white, grooved paper was applied directly to the unprimed drywall.  The architect’s purpose for the color was to soften the light within the building.  What I saw, at the time, was paper peeling at the high points, seams showing, and discoloration at the seams in places.  As I sat reading a newspaper on my clandestine visit, I was struck by a sense of clutter and a kind of gloomy ambiance about the place.  My mind started thinking, “we could do….” 

When the Board hired me as director, I set “fixing up Darlington Branch” as a priority.  There were a couple of things I had to keep in mind, even though renovating and reinvigorating Darlington Branch was a priority, there were a couple of other priorities as well, one being the Lamar addition.  Also, it had to be done within our budget, meaning we had to be resourceful, creative, and innovative.   

Since we could not hire a library design consultant to come into the building to make recommendations or hire out much of the work, Darlington Branch would have to be a DIY (Do It Yourself) project for us.  First, we needed recommendations.  Where was the best place to start?  The staff!  I got the staff involved with a “field trip” to the Darlington Branch.   I had some ideas for the Branch and I was sure the staff had some great ideas too.  The staff was instructed before the “field trip” to look at this from the perspective of a new customer’s experience at the Library.  The customer experience does not begin somewhere inside the front door, it begins in the parking lot.  We walked the parking lot.  We climbed the steps to the front door.  How often do you think an employee walks through the front door after his/her first day on the job?  If there is a staff entrance, the answer is almost never.  We walked through the public areas noting lighting, the wall paper, customer traffic flow, shelving, signage (or lack of), customer service points (desk locations, copier, etc.), and much more.  Most had never experience such an exercise.  The staff had some great ideas and saw things I never did.

After the field trip, some little things were done immediately.  The big ideas and changes we came up with would take time and planning.  When you are faced with such a major undertaking a tape measure (25 foot minimum), masking tape, graphed out floorplan, calculator, helium balloon, string, and pencil become your friend.  Keep in mind as well, the budget would not allow much in the way of extra funds for the project.  After a while, a general plan took shape.

For two years, we worked around the edges of the plan.  We moved the new materials shelves, changed the landscaping, and combined the circulation and reference desks.  At the beginning of the year, opportunities to rapidly move ahead on the plan appeared.  The Lamar Branch Addition was underway and moving ahead smoothly, “Cool Librarian” Gwen Robinson became Darlington Branch manager, and Jane Proell proposed the Darlington Branch become the Cornerstone Baptist Church’s 2015 MissionFest project.  In April, it all began to come together.  It culminated on May 2nd  and 3rd with the members of MissionFest taking our dream for a revitalized Branch and making them a reality.

During those two days, as described in a May News and Press article, the MissionFest members stripped wallpaper and painted, flipped the children’s section with the adult reference and nonfiction area, built a wall creating a separate children’s area, installed surveillance cameras, and so much more.  If you have ever watched one of those home “makeover” shows on TV, you have a hint what it was like to see what happened.  They did a fantastic job.  With the work of the Friends, staff, and others in following days and weeks, the Darlington Branch has been renovated and revitalized!

When you walk through the doors, the Darlington Branch’s color scheme, selected by the staff, is what has been described as inviting and contemporary.  The Branch has lost its cluttered appearance.  The children’s room is bright, open, and inviting because it takes advantage of the natural light from one of the great windows.  The children’s librarian’s desk looks out upon the room.  By rearranging the staff work areas, two public study rooms are available for use.  The public computers are in an area more suited for their use.  We have even committed more funds to “freshen” the Branch’s collections.  There is more to come. 

We are not finished yet.  There is more to do at the Darlington Branch.  We are looking for ideas and suggestions.  What do you think about an enclosed garden outside the children’s room?  An outdoor stage?  A sculpture, public art, in front of the building? Outdoor benches and tables?  An addition and larger meeting room?  We encourage dreamers and visionaries.         

Come see the “New” Darlington Branch this Saturday, July 25th from 12-2 p.m. and share your thoughts, ideas, dreams, and visions for the Branch and the Darlington County Library System’s future.

July 20, 2015