Category Archives: Library

Lost Laurel… in Hyattsville

You could say that the Prince George’s County Library System is in my DNA. Since I was a kid, I’ve loved libraries; it’s no wonder that my very first job was at the Stanley Memorial Library, where I ended up working as a clerical aide from 1987 to 1997. Not only that, but just before I was born, my mom worked at the Hyattsville Branch. (We actually lived in Hyattsville just before moving to Laurel in 1976). That was the first library I’d ever visited—and I literally thought it was out of this world:

(Photo:  © Prince George's County Memorial Library System)

The Hyattsville Branch’s iconic “flying saucer” entrance. (Photo: © Prince George’s County Memorial Library System)

I made the trek to the Hyattsville Branch today for a very special reason. My book, Lost Laurel, was recently added to the PGCMLS collection—and a reference copy is now on the shelf in the historic Maryland Room! It sounds cheesy, but I wanted to visit it.

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Sure enough, tucked between larger, older volumes, there it was—bearing Dewey Decimal System label MDR 975.251 FRI.

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I spent a few quality minutes browsing the other shelves, too. The fact that I had the Maryland Room all to myself today made the visit all the more special. (And yes, the clerical aide in me couldn’t resist re-shelving a few books I spotted that were out of place. Old habits die hard…)

I’m still sad that the old Stanley Memorial Library where I worked is completely gone now, although Laurel certainly did need an upgrade. And significant progress is finally being made on the new Laurel Branch. PGCMLS has an official Flickr album with frequent updates.

(Photo: © Prince George's County Memorial Library System)

(Photo: © Prince George’s County Memorial Library System)

Admittedly, I’m much more excited to see it completed now than I was a few months ago. I’m even more excited to see some Lost Laurel books on those brand new shelves.

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The End of the Library

By now, many of you already know that the Stanley Memorial Library has always been a very special place for me.

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It was the first library I can remember ever going into as a child, and I still vividly recall my amazement at learning that there was no limit to how many books I could check out at any given time—and that it was all completely free. What madness! “How do they stay in business?!” I asked my mom.

Fast-forward a few years; and as a not-quite-fifteen-year-old kid in 1987, I got my work permit and was given my very first part-time job: manning the desk at the “Computer Connection“—the library’s small public computer lab. I scheduled reservations for people I can still picture to this day, including Mr. Anderson, the budding fiction writer who plugged away at the Apple IIe at least twice a month. Other, more utilitarian types booked time on the IBM PC; and surprisingly, hardly anyone ever used the Macintosh. Librarian Carl Keehn, who’d hired me, was the first to encourage me to take advantage of any downtime by learning all I could—particularly on that Macintosh. (As a graphic designer today, that’s my primary tool).

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As I recently learned from Carl, I almost didn’t get that job. Not because I wasn’t qualified, but because I was still underage. The law didn’t allow me to work past 8:30, and the job required me to stay until 8:45. The library actually ended up applying for a waiver, and the rest was history.

The Computer Connection gig only lasted a couple of years, though, as the first of many county cutbacks began to loom. Nonetheless, while the computers were going bye-bye for the 1990s, I was glad to learn that my job wasn’t. In fact, it was really just beginning. I was reassigned as a clerical aide, or page—where I got to re-shelve books and locate back issue periodicals for patrons.

Well, I’m not going to bore you with my whole employment story again. Suffice it to say that I grew up in that library. Not only was it my first job, I ended up working there all throughout high school and college. I can’t begin to count how many good memories that place holds for me. Even the very first date I ever went on—the library is where I met and nervously asked out that first girl I really liked, right there in the parking lot.

Even after starting my first full-time graphic design job in 1997, I clung to the library; I continued to work part-time on the weekends, not because I needed to, but because I guess I really just didn’t want to let it go.

And that feeling that crept back again, nearly 20 years later—with the announcement of a new Laurel Library branch now due to be built on the site by 2017. Yes, even in spite of the 1993 expansion which nearly tripled the size of the original building, the old library had far outgrown the space. But to imagine those old walls, the sight of which conjure so many fond memories, being torn down—it was a tough pill to swallow.

The demolition was originally scheduled for last fall, I believe; but for one reason or another, there were delays. The library’s last day of operation in this building had been March 8, 2014. Shortly thereafter, a temporary (and much smaller) facility was established behind City Hall at 8101 Sandy Spring Road. But the old building sat empty and untouched for over a year, until finally, the familiar signs of pending destruction began to emerge: construction crew trailers were installed in the parking lot, and a chain link fence went up around the perimeter. Each weekend, I’d make the drive from Centreville, VA to Laurel, hoping to catch the first moments of it on film, but dreading it at the same time. Worse, I feared that one day soon, I’d approach that familiar corner of Seventh Street and Talbott Avenue, and the old library would be nothing more than a pile of rubble.

Finally, I got word that NARDI Construction, Inc. was ready to start. On May 6th, 2015, I drove to the site and met foreman Chuck McNulty, who regrettably told me that the excavators they were expecting that morning hadn’t showed up after all—it looked like they wouldn’t start tearing the building down in earnest until the next day. But it was hardly a wasted trip, as Chuck asked if I’d be interested in taking a few mementos his team had salvaged. Little did I imagine these would include the original, complete set of blueprints from 1965—blueprints I remember hanging in the basement office of the late Tom Acra, the library’s beloved maintenance man.

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Chuck told me they should be good to go the following day, so on May 7th, I made the trip back. The smaller Bobcats were hard at work inside, doing some final interior gutting before they’d start knocking down the walls. While I was taking photos on the corner, Chuck appeared in what had previously been one of the windows—it was now more like an open bay door. I’ll never forget what he asked next:

“Wanna come in and see the inside one last time?”

He told me it was okay to film and photograph anything I wanted (with the exception of the workers themselves, some of whom may not want their pictures taken). I grabbed both my video camera and the still camera, stepped over the caution-taped hard hat area, and into the vacant shell of the Stanley Memorial Library one last time.

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It didn’t occur to me until I’d gone home and started sorting through my photos that the demolition came on the anniversary of the library’s official dedication. While the building had opened in 1965, the dedication didn’t actually happen until May 7, 1967.

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Forty-eight years ago to the day, future U.S. Congresswoman Gladys Noon Spellman, Laurel Mayor Merrill Harrison, and other local officials had assembled behind the original circulation desk and delivered the dedication.

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And now, there I was at the same spot, moments before the building would finally meet its end. For 50 years, this library had stood here; countless patrons milling about its shelves for bestsellers and all sorts of media… (I’ve even heard stories of an actual art collection being loaned out in the ’70s—you could borrow a new painting for your living room wall every couple of weeks!) And of course, my thoughts went to the many people who worked here, both before and after my time as a staff member. That’s when it dawned on me that of all those people, I suddenly found myself being the last one who’d ever walk through it again.

It was about a half hour later that the first of the walls started coming down—the vestibule roof that had originally covered the Seventh Street entrance, the original circulation workroom, and most recently, the quiet study room—crashed to the ground in a cloud of beige dust. After that settled, I got to witness the center wall that was the heart of the 1965 building fall:

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Chuck said that they wouldn’t likely get to the other major sections that day, but I’d seen enough. I’m not sure I wanted to see the expansion side come down—the section that was brand new in 1993, which seems like just the blink of an eye ago.

The construction crew took a brief break over the weekend (the Main Street Festival proved a welcome distraction to any other nostalgic library types like me) and was back at it on Monday, May 11th. By the end of this week, if not sooner, the rest of the library will be leveled.

You can peruse my full set of photos on Flickr, which includes several days leading up to and during the demolition. I’ll be adding to it in the weeks to come.

Many thanks again to Chuck McNulty and NARDI Construction for going above and beyond in providing me access to document the building’s demise, and for saving some one-of-a-kind historical mementos. The cornerstone and dedication plate will be preserved in the Laurel Museum.

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He also set aside several bricks for me, and even helped load them into my truck—bricks that I’ll be distributing to former library colleagues as one last little piece of this place we loved.

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Stanley Memorial Library: What’s In a Name?

UPDATE: 3/8/14

Shortly after stories were published about opposition to the Prince George’s County Memorial Library System’s plan to drop the “Stanley Memorial” name from the new library, Laurel resident Maureen Johnson wrote a letter to the editor of the Laurel Leader, in favor of changing the name. She brought to light an important historical detail that had been readily available in Charles H. Stanley’s online biography, but until now, hadn’t so much as raised an eyebrow: he fought for the Confederacy.

She raised the point that it’s not necessarily the fact that a library is named after a Confederate veteran that troubles her; it’s the location of the library that is going to undoubtedly rub many residents the wrong way—Laurel’s historically African-American neighborhood, The Grove. Moreover, the new building will occupy an even larger portion of Emancipation Park than the current building does.

Maureen gave an interview with NBC4’s Tracee Wilkins last night that explained her position well:

NBC4 News screenshot

Click image for link to video and story on NBCWashington.com

It’s crucial that I include this update, because much has changed over the last few days—and it’s in the interest of fairness that I add Maureen’s voice to the story.

When I wrote the original post below—and subsequently launched a petition urging the Library Board to keep the Stanley name, it was solely in response to the news that the PGCMLS was planning to drop the name “in order to make the library easier to find”—which I think we can all agree was a universally absurd reason.

As far as I was concerned at the time, the only issue at hand was the library’s potential breach of contract with the Stanley family—the descendants of Charles Stanley, who generously donated the land for which a library in his honor was constructed.

For whatever reason, it seems that the idea of actually researching the complete life history of Mr. Stanley himself has just never manifested until now. And in the heat of the moment, reading what little information was posted about him, the innocuous mention that he served as a private in the Confederate army admittedly didn’t have anywhere near the emotional effect on me as it did Ms. Johnson; and that resulted in some spirited back-and-forth on Facebook earlier this week.

I’m happy to report that I had the chance to meet Maureen in person yesterday, and found her to be a wonderful, engaging lady who’s clearly passionate about her hometown. She’s also acutely aware of the sensitivity of this entire situation, and acknowledges that it’s complicated on so many levels.

We discussed my concern that Stanley’s legacy of extensive service to Laurel shouldn’t be tarnished outright without significantly more research. There are snippets emerging of other potentially important and redeeming deeds that Stanley may have done in his lifetime that specifically benefited the African-American community, too—if verifiable, those types of things would certainly have to be taken into consideration, as well. By the same token, should more troubling details surface about his Civil War experience, it needs to come to light for history’s sake, and particularly for the sake of the surrounding community in which his namesake library has stood for nearly half a century.

The PGCMLS has a difficult task ahead, and I hope they’ll reach out to the Stanley family—or vice versa—and work together to reach a solution that’s in Laurel’s best interest.

We’ve hardly heard the last of this story. In the meantime, the Laurel Leader‘s Luke Lavoie has written the first extensive piece on it, which you can read here. There are plenty of good points within.

And if all that isn’t enough library action for you, don’t forget that today, March 8th, is actually the last day that the old building will be open to the public. Stop by and soak it all in, one last time.

 

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The original post appears below.

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(Laurel Historical Society collection)

(Laurel Historical Society collection)

The final week of Laurel’s Stanley Memorial Library is nearly upon us, as the building that opened in 1967 is scheduled to close on March 10th. After next Saturday, March 8th, patrons will have to wait until March 31st for the opening of a temporary facility behind the Municipal Center—as the old building will be demolished and construction set to begin on the town’s brand new facility.

The new library will be on the same site, situated at the corner of 7th & Talbott. So while Laurel isn’t technically losing its library, it will be losing the recognizable building that so many have utilized in its nearly 47 years. And that’s the toughest part for me, personally—having worked there as a clerical aide from 1987–97, I’m just not looking forward to seeing the place I knew so well torn down. I was part of the staff who, way back in 1993, physically moved every book, shelf, and table around during the expansion.

(Richard Friend/Lost Laurel collection)

(Richard Friend/Lost Laurel collection)

Make no mistake, getting a new library is a very big deal. And it’s good for Laurel. The branch desperately needed the expansion 21 years ago, and has since outgrown that, as well. And this year is shaping up to be one of a renaissance for the town, what with the opening of the new Town Centre at Laurel this Fall, and the library construction.

But one of the issues recently being brought to light is the name of the library itself—something that has been a bit blurred over the decades, and something which the Prince George’s County Memorial Library System has done little to clarify.

Most of us—myself included, as well as the very librarians and staff who’ve worked there for years—have always referred to the building as “the Laurel Library”. It’s how they answer the phones there, and it’s simply an accepted informal name. In fact, most people don’t even use “Laurel” when referring to it; because if you’re in Laurel and you’re going to “the library”, there’s only one you’re going to.

But at the same time, most of us who use these abbreviated names are still conscious of the fact that the building does have a proper name gracing its exterior—the Stanley Memorial Library. And now, for whatever reason, the Prince George’s County Board of Library Trustees is planning to formally drop Stanley’s name from the new building entirely. And they’re doing so under the auspices of “helping the public find the library”—as if A) people in Laurel have forgotten that there’s been a library at this location for nearly half a century, and B) you couldn’t Google directions in a matter of seconds—in this Internet age that has, in effect, almost made libraries obsolete.

(Wikipedia)

Charles H. Stanley (1842–1913) was the second mayor of Laurel, as well as the founder and president of Citizens National Bank on Main Street. A quick perusal of his biography at the Maryland State Archives will show that he was much more—not only in the Laurel community, but to Prince George’s County and the state of Maryland itself.

(Maryland State Archives)

(Maryland State Archives)

(Maryland State Archives)

(Maryland State Archives)

He lived and died in Laurel, and is buried at Ivy Hill Cemetery—where he could soon be spinning in his grave, should his name be unceremoniously dropped from the library that was always intended to bear his name.

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According to Sylvia Bolivar, president of the Prince George’s County Board of Library Trustees:

“The Board believes that naming a branch library according to its location helps the public to find libraries close to their neighborhoods, whereas a building named after a person, tends to render a library harder to find.”

She wrote this in a January 22nd response to Laurel Mayor Craig Moe, who had respectfully contested the change. PGCMLS director Kathleen Teaze supported her position in the name of “…(keeping) consistency among the system”—the system, of course, being a simple naming convention based on the branch location.

The Laurel Historical Society also supports keeping the name intact, and Executive Director Lindsey Baker not only submitted an editorial letter in this week’s Laurel Leader, but wisely pointed out this important tidbit:

In the 1963 deed transferring the land where the library currently sits, it specifically states that the Board of County Commissioners for Prince George’s County will erect “a Public Library Building to be known as ‘The Stanley Memorial Library’ ” on the land deeded from the Stanley family.

That fact alone should be legally ironclad, for as long as any library sits on the parcel of land at the corner of 7th and Talbott. And the Board of Library Trustees’ plan to “commemorate Stanley with a photo and memorial in the library lobby” is an embarrassingly poor compromise, when the man’s name was always intended to be much more prominently associated.

I know what some of you are probably thinking. “Who cares, right? It’s just a library.” I’m sure the Stanley family cares, having deeded the land for the library in the first place. Clearly Mayor Moe and the Laurel Historical Society care. I care, and you should care. Most of all, the Prince George’s County Board of Library Trustees had better start caring.

What I find most ironic in this is the complete lack of recognition of their own name, the Prince George’s County MEMORIAL Library System. Maybe they should consider changing that, if they’re no longer concerned with memorializing those who made the branches possible.

In fairness, I understand to some degree what they’re trying to do. Naming the libraries by location makes perfect sense; and again, people are inherently going to revert to calling them that anyway. It happens with many building dedications, including schools and government facilities. How many DC tourists do you think ask for directions to the “J. Edgar Hoover Building”? They don’t. They say, “Where’s the FBI building?” And that’s fine, because Mr. Hoover’s name is still on it, regardless.

If PGCMLS wishes to refer to the new building as the “Laurel Library”, I see no reason why they shouldn’t. The public can refer to it that way, as well. But the new building should nonetheless still prominently bear the name “Stanley Memorial Library”, as its original land deed intended. That part is non-negotiable. And ultimately, it would be no different than it’s always been.

(Laurel Leader, May 14, 1981)

(Laurel Leader, May 14, 1981)

(Photo: PGCMLS)

(Photo: PGCMLS)

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I’d like to get back to the Board of Library Trustees’ idea of commemorating Mr. Stanley with a photo and memorial in the lobby for a moment, though. Because while it isn’t appropriate for Mr. Stanley himself in this circumstance, I certainly don’t mean to belittle a lobby tribute—to the right person. In fact, it might be unconventional, but there’s someone in particular I’d really like to see receive that honor.

A lot of wonderful people have worked at the Laurel branch since 1967, and sadly, some of them are no longer with us. One such person I’ll forever associate with the library is a gentleman named Tom Acra.

Tom Acra, January 1993. (Photo: Richard Friend)

Tom Acra, January 1993. (Photo: Richard Friend)

Tom Acra and librarian Brenda Hill, January 1993. (Photo: Richard Friend)

Tom and librarian Brenda Hill, January 1993. (Photo: Richard Friend)

Tom was the quintessential jack of all trades. Admittedly, I don’t recall what his official job title was—whether it was “maintenance supervisor” or “building superintendent” or something along those lines; one thing was clear—Tom took care of the Laurel Library like it was his home, and the employees and patrons like they were his family. He was the first person to open the building each morning and the last to lock up and leave; and from his modest workshop in the basement, he had the tools and skills necessary to handle any task at hand. A pipe burst? Tom could fix it. He was always there for any such maintenance emergency, but more routinely, he handled custodial duties: buffing the tiles, vacuuming the carpets, washing the windows, dusting and wiping down the shelves, and more. In the winter, there were no snow plow teams to clear the parking lot—there was only Tom, with a single shovel, a bucket of ice melt, and that familiar, friendly voice of his, cautioning everyone who approached to be careful not to slip. “Aww yeeeaah… watch your step, there…”

Tom was one of the first friends I made when I started working at the library, and no matter how busy he was, he always had time to chat about the Redskins, an upcoming election, the weather, or a particular history book that had caught his eye over in section 973. (Yes, after all these years, I still can’t shake the Dewey Decimal System…)

Tom had started working at the library straight out of high school himself, and simply kept at it year after year—learning the nuances of the building and caring for it like no one else. He’d been part of the first massive rearrangement of books in 1977, and spearheaded the laborious task again in 1993 when the library expanded.

(Laurel Leader, August 4, 1977)

(Laurel Leader, August 4, 1977)

As the years went on and the PGCMLS budget tightened, Tom was utilized even more. I can recall clerical aide hiring freezes that lasted for a year or longer; during which time Tom would help our depleted team by reshelving books and stamping date due cards. More often than not, we never even had to go out to unload the book drop, because Tom had beaten us to it.

Before long, he’d even been recruited to man the circulation desk, and seemed to relish the time spent helping patrons check out their books and other materials. His was a familiar face at checkout time on Sundays, especially—when most staff members opted for Sundays off. (Yes, the library was actually open on Sundays back then—during the school year, at least.)

And it was with the patrons that Tom really connected, ironically. He wasn’t a librarian, or someone you’d expect to be a “people person”, but that’s precisely what he was. In fact, he was a natural at it—and he connected with people of all ages. Kids from the neighboring Grove would occasionally come into the library for a drink from the water fountain and a brief respite from the outside heat, and their voices would inevitably get louder—a bit too loud for a library. Whereas most adults would blow a gasket, Tom had a gentle way of approaching the kids; for one thing, he knew them all by name, and they knew him. And in a matter of seconds, he’d have them quietly perusing a book or magazine, and then happily on their way.

Yes, Tom Acra was much more to the Stanley Memorial Library than just a maintenance man. Taking care of the building and its denizens was more than just a job to him.

Tom passed away unexpectedly in February 2003 at the age of 50. And when his beloved old library is torn down in the next few weeks, I’m kind of grateful he won’t have to be here to witness it.

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But in closing, I would like to offer these simple suggestions to the Prince George’s County Board of Library Trustees:

  • Continue to honor the legacy of Charles H. Stanley by placing the rightful name, “Stanley Memorial Library” on the new building. If you wish to refer to it within the system as the “Laurel Library”, by all means do so—just as you always have. But please don’t try to remove or relegate his name and think people won’t notice… or mind.
  • If you’re considering honoring someone from the community with a small memorial plaque in the lobby, honor someone who truly did give their all to the library. Tom Acra wasn’t a wealthy benefactor or politician, and you won’t readily find his name in books or newspapers; but he certainly invested a lifetime of care and stewardship into our library, and I have no doubt he’d do the same for the new building.
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