Renovated Somerville West Branch library offers dynamic space to community

The new glass entrance to the Somerville Public Library West Branch is pictured. Sophie Dolan / The Tufts Daily

Many have walked by the West Branch of the Somerville Public Library on the way to Davis Square, watching the renovations over the years, without ever stepping foot inside. Built in the Classical Revival style, the West Branch has maintained many of its historic features since the renovations while adding modern upgrades to make the space more usable for the community. 

The Somerville Public Library received funding from Andrew Carnegie to establish the West Branch building in 1909. Since the building opened, the West Branch has only undergone minor renovations and some cosmetic work. The building lacked a number of accessibility features and air conditioning, and the only public toilets were located downstairs in the children’s department, according to Somerville Library Director Cathy Piantigini.

Renovations to the West Branch centered on increasing the accessibility of the library to the community. 

“We want our libraries to do a lot to respond to a lot of different needs in the community, whether that’s through our collections or our programming or the space that we can make available to the public,” Piantigini said. “So what we really want ideally are spaces that are responsive.” 

The library held a number of community meetings to get input from the community on what they wanted in the renovated West Branch. 

“The community meetings really served as an opportunity to find out what the community thought they needed in the renovated West Branch,” Piantigini said. “There was a lot of planning around the size of the renovation because this was an opportunity for us to also expand the library.” 

According to Alison Mitchell, a children’s librarian at the branch, the plan for the renovation changed significantly following input from the community at these meetings.  

The updates consisted of a historic renovation of the existing building and a new addition. 

“Much love and attention was put back into [the building] … The woodwork was restored, the original tile on the main floor was preserved. We had some of the windows that were original to the building, those were all restored as well,” Piantigini said.

Piantigini said the addition serves primarily to house an accessible entrance, the new elevator and one of the new public bathrooms. The question was how big the addition should be to account for the various needs of the community.

“We ended up with a square footage that allowed us to have some really nice programmatic space in that new addition,” Piantigini said.

A key part of the addition is the flexibility for different events. Just this past Tuesday, the West Branch served as a polling location for the community, according to Piantigini.

The modern addition has a wall of windows that opens into a courtyard with a preserved Norway Maple tree behind the library. This flexible space has been useful in planning programming that can be inside and outside during the pandemic. Mitchell has been hosting a children’s story time outdoors in the renovated courtyard. There is also a series of violin concerts taking place this fall in the new space. 

In addition, there are a number of wooden tables and a bar where people can sit, read and do work. There is also a drop-down screen that allows the library to have presentations and events, according to Piantigini. 

The West Branch is the first of the Somerville public libraries constructed to allow community members to use the space when the library isn’t open, Piantigini explained. There is a community room in the basement that people can reserve and use. 

Upstairs in the original building is the children’s section, which now has a restored skylight. The main floor has the circulation desk and the refurbished historic reading rooms. The downstairs now houses most of the adult collection and meeting spaces that are available to the public. There is also a large table where people have been working and hanging out, Mitchell explained. 

“This was the point — to turn it into a place where people have wanted to come and be — because before we did have tables and things, but people weren’t hanging out there,” Mitchell said.

Piantigini said that the Somerville Public Library received funding from the city and a grant from the Community Preservation Act for the renovation.

During the renovations, the West Branch operated a small collection out of the Tufts Administration Building at 167 Holland St. When the pandemic hit, the West Branch at TAB closed to the public, only offering email and virtual programs. Staff were allowed back into the building in June 2020, and the library started doing contactless pickup from each library location.

The renovated West Branch opened over the summer, offering only contactless pickup at first. Since then the building has opened to the public, who have been taking full advantage of the space. 

Community members  have been using the library’s resources like printing, free wifi and lending Chromebooks. It is also a place to just sit and read a book or  newspaper.

Since the West Branch has reopened,  some Tufts students have used the library to study and borrow books.

Junior Elisa Cink visited the newly renovated West Branch library for the first time this summer. She went with a number of friends to get a free library card, a process she said was really easy.

Mitchell explained that students, even if they’re not from Massachusetts, are able to get a library card for free with their Tufts address. With a library card students can check out physical books and have access to the online resources offered as part of the library.

Cink mentioned that part of the appeal of the West Branch is its convenient location and the ease of borrowing books for free.

Some students enjoy having the West Branch library as a place off campus to study. 

“I know sometimes students like to do work in Davis so I think that’s a good place if you want to be somewhere other than Tufts,” Cink said. “It’s nicely renovated and it’s got big windows so it’s good for [studying].” 

Senior Caitlin Colino went to the library to study for the first time this semester. 

“The first time I went in I was stunned with how beautiful it was on the inside,” Colino said. “It’s obviously pretty from the outside but it was nice to see a modern feel … It was a nice balance of quiet with a little bit of background noise … and I was able to get some good work done.”

The West Branch is now better able to respond to the needs of the community and provides a welcoming space for anyone to visit.

“I really hope that people do get an opportunity to go check out the space … It’s a great programmatic space,” Piantigini said. “It’s also great for somebody who needs to get some work done … you can sit in a really beautiful spot in pretty much any part of that library.”