On November 8, 2013, librarians and architects from around the country gathered at the newly renovated Central Branch of the St. Louis Public Library (SLPL) to discuss the present and future of building libraries at LJ’s Design Institute (DI). The watchword of the fall 2013 DI was flexibility, and the emphasis of the event was on creating libraries that can adapt to serve new purposes—some of which librarians and designers can’t even yet foresee.
As libraries continue to move away from being simply buildings full of books, the consensus among librarians and designers alike is that they are moving, instead, toward becoming multiuse spaces where community members can access information and unlock their creativity, on their own or as a group. That means that design decisions for new construction and renovations must be lithe, with the capacity to host a reading group one night and a community meeting the next. And, of course, there will still need to be someplace to put the books. Above all, though, patience and planning remain key to a successful redesign. Waller McGuire, executive director of the beautifully renovated SLPL, which hosted the event, drove that point home when he recalled that his first dinner with an architect to discuss the renovation took place 15 years ago.
How to flex your library
To that end, discussion revolved around ways that libraries can offer flexibility to their patrons while maintaining their spirit as places for public enlightenment. Panelists and participants were quick to point out that designing flexibility into a space can be done in a variety of ways. Everything was on the table, from designing multipurpose meeting rooms with sliding shutters that can change size to accommodate a wide variety of groups and tasks to wheeled shelving units that can make a library’s stacks less static. Of course, not every change requires shifting the landscape of a library. More subtle alterations, such as adjustable lighting schemes that change with the hours of the day, can act as cues for patrons, designating areas that are, for example, meant for kids and teens after school but intended for adult patrons in the evening.
Libraries not only need spaces that can serve a variety of purposes today, they also must be able to adapt to new uses in the coming decades. The pace at which new technologies develop means that librarians and architects must create spaces that can fulfill needs that no one has anticipated. Without a crystal ball, building for the future is no small feat, but as panelist Dan Meehan of HBM Architects put it, “No one wants to be the architect who designs the newest out-of-date library.” While seeing the future is a lot to ask, building with it in mind was a priority among librarians and designers who gathered in St. Louis. They pointed to simple design concepts that can help new buildings prepare for what tomorrow might bring, like raised floors that can enable infrastructure improvements more smoothly, even without knowing just what those upgrades will be.
The DI also showcased new designs for library furniture, shelving, lighting, and more from vendor sponsors including AGATI, Brodart, TMC, DEMCO, Spacesaver, Techlogic, and Overton & Associates. More than just providing places to sit, new library furnishings now have to serve some of the same design purposes as the building itself, from being easily configurable to make the spaces that house them more multipurpose to providing power for charging mobile devices and incorporating whiteboards that come in handy for meetings of community groups or budding entrepreneurs.
DI attendees didn’t just listen to the day’s many presenters and panelists, however. They also participated in design challenge sessions, working together to develop creative solutions to library design dilemmas. Projects ranged from redesigning the interior of the Indiana State Library to make it more user-friendly to creating a new learning commons space on a tight budget. This year’s design challenge also explored the opportunities and obstacles that arise in collaborations between libraries that share space with other institutions. The Madison Public Library, WI, asked brainstormers how to build a space where a library was complemented by a grocery co-op, while librarians from Joplin, MO—still rebuilding from the tornadoes that ravaged the city in 2011—looked for help developing a space where a new library could thrive alongside (or actually underneath) a movie theater. And, finally, Missouri’s Brentwood Public Library took a hands-on approach to the afternoon’s panel, asking how to decide when to renovate an existing space and when to build a new one from scratch? (Read more about the design challenges here.)
Building for literacies
What does the traditional library mission of promoting literacy mean in the 21st century? Librarians and designers discussed how literacy has new meanings and varieties in today’s world, from the visual literacy of design to the informational literacy necessary for patrons to discover new information on their own.
“Libraries afford people the opportunity to have different types of learning available,” said Meera Jain, a designer for Arcturis, pointing out how new types of library resources like Maker spaces can bring in new blood and attract users the library might not have been serving previously. That sentiment was echoed in a later panel by Steven Potter, director of the Mid-Continent Public Library in Kansas City, MO, who said that when thinking about the design or renovation of a building, “more shelving space is no longer the answer.”
Of course, what the answer will be is different for every library, Johnson County, KS, librarian Sean Casserly reminded the audience. “The need in Kansas is different from the need in New York or St. Louis,” Casserly added, imploring directors and designers to listen to staffers and community members about what is most necessary in a new library building.
Reboot or start from scratch
Addressing a key first question, architects weighed in on the pros and cons of renovating an existing library branch and building a new one. While there are plenty of practical considerations like cost, time, and environmental impacts to take into account when deciding to undertake a new build, architect Meehan began, decision makers can’t forget that, owing to libraries’ strong connection to the community, the emotional component of the decision to renovate a building or start from scratch can’t be ignored.
That’s why a happy medium in a renovation or rebuild will “use details to pay homage to the earlier building,” suggested Bradd Brown of OPN Architects. But sentimentality can’t trump practicality all the time, SAPP Design’s James Stufflebeam said, pointing out that a great many beloved libraries, especially postwar buildings, were built on the cheap. For these spaces, lasting forever was never part of the initial plan. Neither were things like cables for high-speed Internet, meaning that the character of a beloved building may hold it back from providing modern services.
Even once the decision to build or renovate has been made, these considerations aren’t over: a historical building isn’t the only thing that can evoke emotional responses. Weeding, too, can provoke community backlash, yet renovations and new builds alike often call for rethinking a collection and making some tough weeding decisions. “It’s not good enough to have a room full of books,” Potter said. “We need space for collaboration and programming.”
Special thanks to our sponsors for their generous support of and participation in LJ’s Design Institute