September 22, 2017

Library Buildings 2004: Great Libraries in the Making

A new generation of innovative public libraries is on the boards

We are in an age of experimentation. From Cerritos, CA, to Salt Lake City to Seattle, library users are experiencing public libraries the likes of which they have never before seen. While the 1990s may be remembered as the era of the anchor facility, when libraries were called upon to define and support a community’s renaissance, this decade’s library projects are responding to a new set of expectations and opportunities. A key element, of course, is technology. While older buildings may have accommodated technology, today’s new libraries are formed by it.

But it’s not all bits and bytes. Librarians are keenly aware of the competition, from the mega-bookstores to Kinko’s, and retail models are also driving service and design. Rolled into this is a respect for traditional library environments that encourage quiet study and reflective learning. The overall goal? To be nothing less than the locus for activity in the community.

In development now are four libraries that take risks to expand their reach. While each is unique, they all have the potential to make us think about libraries in entirely new ways.

The Public Thoroughfare

An entirely new building is a rare chance to rebuild library services, and it’s an opportunity Louise Berry, director of the Darien Library, has embraced with gusto. In developing the library’s long-range plan—the prime mover behind her building program—Berry didn’t look at just how her community used the library. She also scrutinized the other services they patronized as well, such as university libraries, stores like Barnes & Noble, and online vendors like Amazon.com. “Convenience of use is clearly valued by our public,” Berry says. As a result, the program for Darien’s new library has a strong customer- and technology-fueled vision.

The program calls for three floors, or zones, each with its own “look and feel” and set of functions. On the first floor, a “public thoroughfare” guides the visitor to the most widely used functions: circulation services, new and high-demand titles, multimedia, a 200-seat community room, and children’s services. This busy walkway connects users with a welcome station (akin to a hotel concierge desk), a constellation of self-check machines, current periodicals, and a café. Gone is the circulation desk, rendered obsolete by RFID. Staff members once involved in materials handling will circulate throughout the floor, assisting patrons.

The upper level will support classic library functions such as research and reading. The reference desk is no longer a physical and psychological barrier between patrons and librarians; instead, reference interview “pods” will provide comfortable customer service stations for one-on-one reference interviews. Reference staff will be equipped with Vocera© wireless communicators to seek assistance from colleagues. This floor will also include the bulk of the book collection, heavily merchandised.

“I’d be surprised if each reference librarian didn’t have a tablet PC they could take with them into the stacks to access the ILS,” said Alan Gray, director of technology. In fact, Gray also expects librarians to be communicating with patrons electronically in real time, possibly with IM to patrons in the library but also to patrons at home, work, or school.

The idea of the information commons—an academic model of service—is jumping over to the public side thanks to Darien. Gray attended a preconference at the 2004 Midwinter Meeting of the American Library Association about the commons. “I immediately thought that teens and an information commons were a match made in heaven,” he said. Berry believes it should also appeal to Darien’s many tech-savvy residents. The library’s lower level will house the commons, which will offer a mix of complementary functions: a teen space; the small office/home office (SOHO) area with robust printing, scanning, and copying facilities; small meeting areas; a technology training center; and in the center of the floor a wealth of PCs heavily loaded with a wide range of peripherals, like digital cameras.

“This is a library that prides itself on its customer service,” Gray says. “We believe that by putting more technology in the new building we won’t lose that relationship—in fact, we’re going to enhance it.” Berry plans for a groundbreaking in late 2006 and expects construction to take 18 months.

A City’s Living Room

The Free Library of Philadelphia’s goal is to take its 77-year-old central library, designed as the archetypal research library, and blow it wide open to the city and its people. Like many central libraries, Philadelphia’s Beaux Arts “fortress” has been through tough times. Over the years, less than sensitive changes have shifted collections and uses, closed up sources of natural light, removed visual and physical connections, and separated the library itself from the physical context of the surrounding urban fabric.

By renovating the original structure and creating an addition, library planners seek to break down those barriers and open up, both physically and visually, access to the system’s flagship and its unique resources. The challenge, according to Isaac Franco, a partner in Safdie & Associates, is to “create a singular new experience” rather than a product that allows the new and historic structures to coexist side by side. Three levels of stacks will be opened between the new and the old structures, providing seamless integration of the two. The glass-covered and light-filled addition will also present to the city a new, and very different, entry point to the library.

One principal objective in Philadelphia’s program is to expand the library’s reach through the creation of the “urban room,” the entry point to the new wing and the connective tissue between it and the historic structure. Open extended hours, this transparent, multifunctional space will be a gathering point for the public, supported by retail stores and programming space for lectures, film series, concerts, and conferences. The “urban room” will help bring to the library new users while reenergizing the role of the library in the social tapestry.

From the urban room, visitors will be drawn in through the popular library. According to Franco, this collection will cull “high-volume, high-interest, high-touch” materials from throughout the collection and make them available in an attractive way that will encourage browsing and casual reading—a radical departure from the present cramped fiction area.

Recognizing the importance of technology in both supporting 21st-century library services and lifelong learning, the library has assembled a Technology Advisory Board, composed primarily of chief information officers from leading Philadelphia corporations. They are charged with assuring that the new central will efficiently support the cutting-edge computer requirements of the future. Today’s 80 public access terminals are expected to quadruple.

The library hopes for a spring 2006 groundbreaking, with completion in late 2008 or early 2009.

The Doorway to Reading

Some librarians may bemoan that readers advisory is a dying art, muscled aside by expanding technology or audiovisual budgets. But the St. Louis Public Library (SLPL) is placing readers’ services at the forefront of its reinvented central library. Using every inch of real estate to maximum effect, the library plans to turn a 5000 square foot room—now a warren of offices—into the Center for the Reader, complete with a browsing collection filled with new, high-interest materials; lively displays; and comfortable spaces. The center will provide readers’ advisory, include small meeting rooms for groups, present large screens to advertise author events, and offer a multimedia collection of author interviews and literary programs. A nearby boiler room will be converted into a 300-seat auditorium.

Located on the ground floor of the beautiful but imposing 1914 Italian Renaissance building designed by Cass Gilbert, the center—like Philadelphia’s urban room and popular collection—will also serve as a new library entryway. SLPL executive director Waller McGuire expects the center to attract a new group of users, some of whom will then move on to the rest of the collection.

The library has long debated how to support 21st-century information needs within its central library and “provide excitement, discovery, and adventure…as well,” McGuire adds. Back in 1995 the library purchased a nearby office building, planning to use it to house some public service departments. But now planners have decided to keep the library within its original envelope and instead move administrative and support services into the office building—a decision that will double or triple the available public space in the central library. This has exposed remarkable areas that can be used in new ways—like the Center for the Reader.

A remaining challenge for McGuire and his staff is how to use the rooms on the upper floors to “divide up Dewey to fall logically and make sense to patrons, while allowing us to maximize the space in the areas we need,” McGuire says. Technology will be seamlessly woven throughout the redesign. Consciously moving away from a “bigger is better” model, McGuire believes, has public service benefits: “We’ll offer considered choices and levels of information.”

The downside is that renovating historic structures this extensively takes time, requires skill, and, unless the library vacates the building, can be time-consuming as well. A full renovation could take up to seven years. If the project were a simple restoration it would be faster, McGuire admits, but “we don’t want to create a museum. We want to create a destination experience.”

The Learning Library

Most public libraries include support for life-long learning among their missions. But few make it as central a part of their services as will the North Natomas Library (NNL).

The NNL is a “triple joint-use” facility, designed as part of the Sacramento Public Library (SPL), CA, to support the entire North Natomas community as well as the students, faculty, and staff of both the Natomas High School and a new campus of the Los Rios Community College. This complex project can work partly because Natomas is a planned community still being built, says Anne Marie Gold, director of SPL, and partly “because the library director, the high school principal, and the college president get together for coffee every Monday morning.”

Situated smack dab in the center of town, the library will be part of the Education Center, a 47-acre campus that now includes only the high school but will also be home to the community college. NNL gives full meaning to the values of partnerships and the synergies they can bring. All three institutions jointly support an array of learning services in the library that will include computer center learning activities, adult literacy, a career center, a distance learning center, gallery space, and a high school community service program. The Education Center shares a central quadrangle that includes an amphitheater, landscaping, seating areas, a sculpture courtyard, and food services.

Technology is being devised to provide ultimate flexibility. In this rapidly growing planned community, every house is equipped with fiber optics. A challenge, Gold says, is how the library—as the one communitywide institution—can become the virtual home for a wired community, extending library services, and learning opportunities, to every family.


Elisabeth Martin, AIA, is a library planner and architect specializing in library design. Brian Kenney is Editor, LJ netConnect

Darien Library, CT

PROJECT 45,000 sq. ft.
COST About $22 million
ARCHITECT Peter Gisolfi Associates, Hastings-on-Hudson, NY
STATUS To be built entirely with private money; project is over 40 percent funded

Free Library of Philadelphia

PROJECT Renovation of the 300,000 sq. ft. central library, plus 160,000 sq. ft. addition
COST $130 million
ARCHITECT Moshe Safdie & Associates, Somerville, MA
STATUS The library hopes to raise $48 million in city funding by the end of 2004; the remainder to come from state, federal, and private funds

St. Louis Public Library

PROJECT Renovation of the 190,000 sq. ft. central library
COST $30–$40 million
ARCHITECT Hillier Group, Princeton, NJ
STATUS Funding strategy is in development

Sacramento Public Library

PROJECT The 23,000 sq. ft. North Natomas Library
COST $13 million
ARCHITECTS Nacht & Lewis, Architects, Sacramento, CA
STATUS The library received nearly $7 million from the CA Library Bond Act, the remainder has been raised through a North Natomas library development fee

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