By Dedra Cordle
Carol Pugh has always believed in the power of libraries.
Ever since she took her first step onto its premises as a young child, she was awed by its endless potential, by its ability to transport and transform all through opening the pages of a book.
That initial impression stayed with her throughout her life; it even inspired her to become a librarian.
“It was the best place I could ever think to be,” said Pugh, who retired from Columbus City Schools’ Stewart Alternative Elementary in 2012.
She said what she loved most about her job was watching the children as they came through the doors, some taking their own first steps into a library.
She would see the children interacting with each other, hear them talking about their likes and dislikes; she watched as they picked up books that caught their interest and saw them sharing it with others.
“A library is a place that builds character, builds friendships,” Pugh said. “It teaches them to be respectful of property that is not theirs and to be kind to those who do not share your interests.”
Throughout her years working at the school, she helped instill a passion for reading for hundreds of children, and sometimes even their parents. Her infectious love for the public places that hold those books even managed to seep into the bones of her immediate family.
“We’re all avid readers and big supporters of libraries,” said Carl Pugh, Carol’s husband of more than 50 years. “We cannot not be in this household.”
One of their favorite places to visit as a family unit was the Columbus Metropolitan Library’s Hilltop Branch – and it was just not because it was located in their westside neighborhood.
“It had a lot of charm,” Pugh said. “It was smaller, more intimate, but there were always interesting programs taking place for children, teens, and older adults like us.”
Like many throughout the community, the Pugh family was saddened by the news that the building at 511 S. Hague Ave. would be closed in 2020 to make way for a large rebuilding project. But they were able to see the bright side of that announcement.
“There are many communities across this country that do not have libraries, let alone get to see a brand new one constructed,” said Pugh. “While we hated to see it go, we knew having a brand new building could make a positive impact on our community for generations to come.”
For more than a year, they watched the building stages of the Hilltop Branch, getting more excited as the months progressed. Then, when its doors finally opened to the public on Sept. 30, 2021, they were some of the first feet in the building.
“It is absolutely beautiful,” said Pugh as she and Carl supervised Maddie, their 5-year-old granddaughter, as she ran across the expanded children’s area, laughing, pulling books off the shelves, sharing them with others. “To see these children, to see all of these teens and all of these adults so excited to be in a library is just an amazing thing to experience.”
She said she cannot wait to see how it grows, how the programs expand, and how much power it will wield in the westside community.
“It is going to be a wonderful tool that everyone can enjoy,” said Pugh. “We are so blessed to have this here.”
Also feeling grateful for the opportunity was John Tetzloff, a Hilltop native who has been the manager of the Hilltop Branch since 2010. He said seeing so many visitors come through the doors to check out the new library was something of an out-of-body experience.
“I never thought this day would come,” he said.
He said that was partially due to how the renovated library came to fruition.
It was November of 2010 and on the ballot was a 2.8-mill property tax levy that, if approved, would generate $56 million annually for the Columbus Metropolitan Library. With those funds, the CML planned a massive “aspirational building program” to renovate or rebuild 10 of its 23 locations. Among those locations slated for a rebuild was the Hilltop Branch, which opened at its current location in 1996.
Knowing the measure would raise property taxes, Tetzloff was not certain that voters would approve the levy request, especially those who lived in more economically stressed areas of Columbus such as the Hilltop.
“We were just two years removed from the recession so we didn’t have our hopes up too high,” he said. “But we were confident in the support we have from our communities.”
The levy was approved and the multi-phased “reinvention and revitalization” of the CML branches began in earnest. CML’s chief executive officer Patrick Losinski praised the community for making that “difficult decision” during the public dedication on Sept. 30.
“You supported us in a big way and no one is more deserving of this,” he said.
Losinski said the opening of the library represents more than a place to check out books, though stressed that is equally important.
“This building represents so much more to this neighborhood,” he said. “It represents an opportunity to provide information and technology needs. It helps students recover from the educational crisis caused by the pandemic, it helps with job training and economic growth, and it helps to inspire and transform lives for years and years to come.”
The new Hilltop Branch, which is still located at 511 S. Hague Ave., has 32,000 square feet of space, an interactive children’s area, a Ready for Kindergarten area, a tween and teen area, and a School Help Center where students can get free after-school help. The library also has four large meeting rooms, two conference rooms, six study rooms, a learning lab, a spacious quiet room, public art, seating areas with views of the neighborhood, and a “robust” collection of library materials to meet the community’s needs. The Hilltop Branch also boasts of having 62 computers.
“There will be no waiting in line to access the computers again,” said Tetzloff. “Or at least there shouldn’t be.”
Tetzloff said he is excited about the promise of this building, for the impact it can have on the lives of those within the community.
“Our mantra is that we provide support for families,” he said. “We all want to support our kids but we believe that if you want to support the kids you have to support the families too.”
He said the library will do that by offering a wide variety of programs. For young learners, the library will offer Baby Laptime! for pre-literacy behavior and training; Storytime for preschool aged children; kindergarten preparation courses; and more in-depth reading instruction to help children conquer the Third Grade Reading Guarantee.
For older learners, there will be the aforementioned School Help Center, summer reading programs, and a new ‘YOUmedia’ Learning Lab that teaches teenagers how to write songs, make movies, or code using the latest digital technology.
The library will also offer ‘life-skills’ programming for adults looking for work, and they plan to partner with local healthcare agencies or non-profit organizations for assistance with healthcare or accessing legal advice.
In addition to all of those programs, the library will also continue to offer fun programming for all ages. Of note, they had local author Andrew Welsh-Huggins drop by on Oct. 5, and they will host a program on the history of the Hilltop on Oct. 18 at 5:30 p.m. The library will announce future events on their website or social media pages.
Like Tetzloff, and the Pugh family before him, Cree Johnson and Alex Miranda said they are impressed by the new facility, the new programs, and the promise of all it can do for the community.
Johnson, a mother of two young girls, said she is excited the branch is back open.
“We’ve been going to that little strip-mall branch they set up (when this location closed in 2020) but it just hasn’t been the same,” said Johnson. “Now, we can access all the books we want, my girls can go to those quiet rooms to work on their homework and really focus on the subjects with help being right around the corner if they need it.”
Miranda, a recent graduate of West High School, said he has been coming to the Hilltop Branch since he was a child.
“My brother and I would come here every day after school,” he said. “You could say we grew up here in a way.”
He said not only did coming to the library keep them from “getting out of trouble,” it provided them with an outlet, it helped them make new friends, and it gave them a new outlook on the possibilities in life.
Miranda said he knows the library will continue to make an impact on people of all ages.
“It’s a great place to be,” he said. “It’s safe, they have a great staff, and it’s just a welcoming place for all people who enter these doors.”