The North-East Branch of the Kansas City Public Library is nearing completion on a $4.5 million renovation.
The North-East Branch opened in 1914 in Northeast High School with 6,000 books. In 1986, the Northeast, East, and Blue Valley branches were combined into the North-East Branch.
The library building at 6000 Wilson Rd. opened in 1989, and had seen few updates since. Since then, the library has gotten technology upgrades and maybe had new carpet installed once, said Joel Jones, deputy director of Library Services.
Renovations to the library can be seen the moment visitors step through the first set of double glass doors. The entrance to the library has been extended, allowing space for the P.O. boxes, among other things between the two sets of doors.
“You can pop in and pick up from your P.O. boxes, you have quick, ready access,” Library Manager Amanda Barnhart said. “For the interim, that’s also where people can come in and pick up their holds, because for right now, starting off, we’re going to have no-contact pick-up services.”
The North-East Branch Library will resume Pop In/Pick Up service on Thursday, Dec. 17, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays and until 5 p.m. Saturdays, at the newly renovated location. It will be the only service besides P.O. boxes at the new location for now, but other vital services, like computer services, will be reintroduced in 2021.
A Welcome Wall will greet visitors to the library in about 15 different languages, many of which are spoken by residents of the Northeast.
“The second that you walk in the door, it really sets the tone for what we want North-East to really be, which is welcoming – as the sign literally says – but also just the brightness of the space, it’s really opened up with all the changes that they’ve made,” Media Relations Specialist Talia Evans said.
Many original features remain in place, including the skylight right inside the main entrance. The remodeled building has maintained the same footprint as the original.
To the left of the entrance is a space dedicated to cafe-style furniture, which will meet a variety of needs. Barnhart said the idea for the space grew out of feedback from the community. It will be ideal for stopping in to quickly utilize internet access, eat takeout or a bagged lunch, or gather with friends once it is safe.
“During our focus group sessions we heard a specific need for an area in which people can have a quick meal,” Barnhart said. “A lot of individuals come and visit us for different reasons, and so that provides them a space to be able to do so.”
In Northeast, a community of diverse cultures, needs, modes of transportation and lifestyles, the remodeled North-East Branch will be accessible to everyone. The branch has long served as a cooling or heating center, depending on the season, for members of the community.
“A lot of people rely on us, too, for our Kids Cafe, which is our partnership with Harvesters,” Evans said. “That will be starting back up here in 2021. It’s another space for people to enjoy a meal, and we’re relied on for more than just books so we’re trying to think about that for everything.”
The branch will also have the option of larger meeting rooms with upgraded technology, which will be ideal for library programming once that returns.
One major change for the branch is the remodeled offices, which have windows looking out into the rest of the branch, giving it a more welcoming feel. Staff workspaces are made to be mobile, allowing convenience when interacting with patrons.
“Just remaining transparent to the community so they know the types of services we offer, but also what occurs in spaces they can’t see, they can clearly define that people are back there working,” Barnhart said. “Even if you’re unfamiliar with the kinds of services that libraries offer, you can at least kind of gain a sense of the type of work we do based on what you can see.”
Throughout the building, the addition of windows both interior and exterior and track lighting open up formerly dark and closed off spaces.
The library, which is in one of the most diverse areas of Kansas City, will have increased resources available for non-English speakers, as well. The Library’s Refugee & Immigrant Services & Empowerment division is moving into the North-East Branch and will share office space with library staff.
“Personally, I love this beautiful new building, but I feel like adding people is one of our greatest resources here so that we can expand the services that we offer, so that’s really exciting,” Barnhart said.
RISE is currently housed downtown, but they’re moving to Northeast because the need in the community is greater and it is a natural fit with the renovation allowing for a permanent, dedicated classroom space, Evans said.
“The space was made and adjusted after COVID to allow for the right amount of people that we know use our service in this way,” Evans said of the 18-student classroom.
RISE facilitates English language and citizenship classes, and more, for immigrants and refugees.
Barnhart said the increase of community spaces is a major benefit of the renovation, whether that is the new, comfortable furniture with electrical outlets, a quiet group study room or the cafe space.
“I feel like the community was so proud of the library it had prior, that once they see the new color, the new carpet, the new furniture, they’re just going to be really impressed with the spaces where they can come together,” Barnhart said.
The furniture for the Teen Section was picked intentionally because of the need of the community, as well.
“They asked for study space and areas where they could gather and do their work,” Evans said. “You have the ability to work on a group project or study alone, and that’s really cool.”
The Teen Section flows easily into the Children’s Section, which have both been relocated. It now overlooks the train tracks, something Evans knows they will be excited to watch.
“You can stand here and see out the windows, across the train tracks over to Independence Avenue, and really brings the neighborhood into the building,” Jones said. “Previously those windows were there, but there were shelves in the way… you didn’t really know there was a neighborhood out there, you were really blocked off from the neighborhood.”
The Children’s Section shelving is more accessible, with books facing forward on drawers that pull out. With children’s books covered in colorful artwork, it will be easier to browse and less overwhelming.
“They picked the shelves out intentionally for the Children’s Section, so they can come and be more engaged with all of the materials that were picked out for this renovated space,” Evans said.
The branch’s collection has expanded by 7,000 books in 13 languages, which will continue to grow.
“I think that Kansas City Public Library puts a really strong emphasis on recognizing what each individual neighborhood really needs, and so a really huge part of this renovation is community input,” Evans said.
Across from the new family restroom, the renovated branch will feature a gallery, Community in Color: Murals of the Historic Northeast, dedicated to 30 murals painted by local artists, on four new 70-inch screens. It will lead to the Messy Space, a room dedicated to learning and creativity.
“As a young person, even as an adult, when you’re engaging in a new activity or project… things can go awry, you can get really excited or you’ve never used that medium before, and in doing so, things can fall on the floor,” Barnhart said. “We don’t want people to feel bad.”
The floor in the sunlit room will be covered in a durable and easily cleaned material perfect for youth programming, cooking classes, crafting and many other big ideas that may spill onto the attached patio space.
“Whatever activity that’s happening is kind of your focal point as you’re driving up and you can see that there’s bustle and excitement going on in this space,” Barnhart said, imagining the future.
A raised ceiling in the Messy Space surrounded on all sides by glass walls will serve as a beacon to the community, especially at night when light shines through, Barnhart said.
“We have some of the most creative people ever working in our library system,” Evans said. “There’s so many opportunities.”
The North-East Branch renovation was funded by voter approval of the 2018 levy vote and donations from the William T. Kemper Foundation, the Sunderland Foundation and the Marion and Henry Bloch Family Foundation.
“This is an exciting update,” said Cindy Hohl, the Library’s director of branch operations. “There’s going to be so much going on in that facility. It’s great to see all of this coming together.”
Plans are to hold a public celebration sometime after the first of the year, as soon as it’s safe, formally unveiling an extensively remodeled facility that reflects the rich diversity of its neighborhood.