Providence Public Library Debuts its Massive Makeover

After months of pandemic-related delays, the renovated PPL reveals itself

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You would hope, after $26 million and years of painstaking work, that your ribbon-cutting would take place in person, cheered on by excited supporters. But hey, that’s the pandemic for you. The Providence Public Library (PPL) was supposed to open its doors in April; in September, the PPL held a humbler ceremony over Zoom. Viewers got to glimpse inside the library from the comfort of their homes, and performance artists Big Nazo made a smile-inducing cameo.

Still, the “Think Again” capital campaign has been a major event, and although the reopening has felt slow and anticlimactic, PPL has hummed with activity since those dark days of March.

“People definitely were missing being able to come into the library during our complete shutdown this spring,” says Jack Martin, PPL’s executive director. “Of course, they were able to access and utilize a host of library resources online, and since reopening our lobby in July, it’s been truly gratifying seeing many of our library users make their way back.”

As thousands of Rhode Islanders were laid off or quarantined, they followed a national trend of borrowing books from the library, including ebooks and audiobooks. The library hosted the remote “Learning Lounge,” where members could learn ESL, study for the GED, and develop computer skills for free. At the end of August, PPL expanded its hours, providing limited on-ground services in the new facility. The number of patrons is tightly controlled, and Mondays are reserved for contactless pickup; but PPL staff are straining to make themselves available in every safe and possible way.

“When we had to close down in March, some pretty wonderful things actually happened,” says Martin. “At PPL, we were fortunate to be able to outfit staff with laptops and set them free to work from home on creating a multitude of virtual offerings. Our education team successfully transitioned almost all of our courses to online or remote sessions, even creating new offerings, and we have seen more people than ever before attending some of these classes, to the point where we may end up continuing some in this way going forward.”

Eventually, the renovated library will open, and patrons will finally understand what all the fuss has been about – and why PPL administration has been so excited to show off its accomplishments. Since 2018, workers have busily rehabilitated 83,000 square feet from the ground up. Cramped little offices have been ripped open; reconfigured rooms are spacious and bright. The cavernous entrance is now a grand atrium, with smooth walls, a graceful staircase, and a second-floor circulation desk. Landings and windows will afford views of the Providence skyline that were, until recently, unimaginable.

The plans were drafted by designLAB, a Boston-based firm. Additional help came from architecture students at RWU, which incorporated the library’s design into its Master’s curriculum. When PPL fully opens, the site will become a destination – not just for borrowing books, but for socializing, entertainment, refreshment, hands-on education, and just spending idle hours downtown.

The pandemic is a life-changing event, of course, and as it continues to shape our generation, the library has taken on another important task. “PPL’s collections team collaborated with the Rhode Island Historical Society to create the RICovidArchive.org,” says Martin. “[They] began encouraging all Rhode Islanders to help by documenting their experiences during this historic moment and contributing items to this growing public archive.” 

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