NORTH PARK — As he prepared to open the gleaming new $15 million, 16,300-square-foot Albany Park Library Branch Saturday morning, Mayor Rahm Emanuel held up his library card.
"This is your passport," Emanuel told community members gathered for the ribbon-cutting ceremony.
Technology upgrades, including 38 computers and a self-contained YOUmedia digital media lab for teens, mean "our children can travel anywhere," the mayor said, declaring the branch "the new gold standard" for Chicago.
The new branch, at 3401 W. Foster Ave. (technically in North Park), was constructed on the site of its demolished predecessor, which, at 50 years old, had seen its day, according to Ald. Margaret Laurino (39th).
"It was a place just to put books on the shelves," said Laurino, who championed the building of a new library. "Today, we have many other choices. To be relevant ... we need access to technology to connect us to the world."
"This is light years more" than the old branch, said Kim Frost, one of the hundreds of residents who turned out for a first look at the new library, which is 6,000 square feet larger.
"The outcome is beautiful. It appeals to all ages," she said. "It's a multimedia experience."
Among the most popular features on opening day: the early literacy and learning space aimed at children zero to 5 years old — the first of its kind within the Chicago Public Library system.
Youngsters could be seen playing with building blocks, hand puppets and a mini-kitchen set, whispering into a "talk tube" or just clambering onto the mushroom-shaped seats.
"Play has a cognitive effect at that age," said John Glynn, Albany Park branch manager. "It's a brain builder for when they're ready to read."
Glynn played an instrumental role in designing the space, making sure that all of the elements were placed low enough to be within reach of the smallest tots.
Bins of picture books were arranged record-store style with the titles facing forward rather than lined up spine-to-spine so that kids could flip through them and get a better idea of what's available, he said.
"Our picture book collection is massive," said Glynn, estimating it's now grown by 30 percent. "We'll have parents come in on the weekend and check out 30 books and max out their cards."
"I didn't expect this," said Gwen Mei, as she watched her 1- and 5-year-olds explore the early literacy space.
"They'll get a lot more exposure to things," she said. "A lot of learning takes place while playing."
Drawing an equal amount of attention: the library's self-checkout station.
Though intended largely to speed the check-out process for adults picking up holds, the station attracted a line of children queuing up to scan their own books.
"The kids love it," said librarian Sarah Tansley, normally assigned to the Humboldt Park branch but pitching in at Albany Park for the grand opening. "It's like they're playing 'library.'"
Kalsum Afzal, a freshman at nearby Von Steuben High School, was among those giving the station a workout, taking home a stack of books so hefty, she pawned half the titles onto her mom, Rifat, to carry.
"The big ones are for me," said Kalsum, who added that she frequently reads two books in a single day.
Patrons like the Afzals had plenty of books to choose from. Along with some holdovers from the old building, specifically a collection of Korean-language titles, the library was freshly stocked with 40,000 - 50,000 new books, according to Andrea Telli, CPL assistant commissioner for neighborhood services.
"All the hottest bestsellers are here," said Telli, noting that, as is common practice with all library openings, none of the books at Albany Park could be placed on hold by patrons from other branches.
Perhaps just as importantly, the new branch has more places for people to sit and read those books, including an outdoor reading garden, and rooms that can be reserved for meetings or group projects.
"Nothing serves as an engaging community hub like a library," said Linda Johnson Rice, president of the board of directors of Chicago Public Library.
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