December 18, 2014

Future Proof | Library by Design

ljx140502webLBDdiSlug Future Proof | Library by DesignOn 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.

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MEET US IN ST. LOUIS Top row, l.-r: St. Louis’s famed arch is a welcome sight, as is the renovated downtown St. Louis Public Library (SLPL) Central Library, which played host to the day’s activities. Middle row, l.-r.: LJ’s Kathleen Quinlan helped attendees check in. Posters highlighted the featured design challenges. Bottom row, l.-r: SLPL’s Central Library revamp was the subject of Library by Design’s Fall 2013 edition, which attracted interested attendees. SLPL executive director Waller McGuire in his opening remarks discussed the massive effort to make over the Central Library and expand its services. Photos by Kevin Henegan

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.

Sharing spaces

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.)

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VENDOR INTERACTION Sharing info with attendees were sponsor firm reps, including (top row, l.-r.) Agati Furniture’s Tim Macal (l.) and Joe S. Agati; Tim Lawson (l.) from Tech Logic; (middle row, l.-r.) Bill Overton, Overton & Associates; Margeline Nichols, TMC Furniture; Ken Reichel, Brodart Contract Furniture; (bottom row, l.-r.) Phil Tilghman, Spacesaver; and Janet Nelson, DEMCO. Photos by Kevin Henegan

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.

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ALL-DAY ACTIVITY The lower-level auditorium (top) was the hub of the design goings-on. The first panel (inset) addressed Designing for 21st-Century Literacy, with St. Louis County Library’s Barbara Brain (3d from l.) moderating for panelists (l.–r.) Sean Casserly from Johnson County Libraries, KS; Traci Lesneski from MSR architects; and Meera Jain from Arcturis. Bottom Row, l.-r.: Networking was on the menu during lunch. Potential solutions for the Madison Public Library’s Pinney branch mobilized challenge session attendees. Photos by Kevin Henegan

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.”

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PANEL LINEUPS Left: Representatives from the architectural firms leading the challenge sessions offered insight during the Design Challenge Takeaway, moderated by LJ’s Ian Chant (standing, l.). Right: Rounding out the panels was an exchange about redesigning older facilities, with (l.–r.) Bradd Brown from OPN Architects, Dan Meehan from HBM Architects, Steven Potter, with Mid-Continent PL, Kansas City, and James Stufflebeam from SAPP Design Architects. Photos by Kevin Henegan

The Sponsors

Special thanks to our sponsors for their generous support of and participation in LJ’s Design Institute


Margaret McDonald, Principal; 314-206-7134

HBM Architects
Dan Meehan, AIA, LEED AP, Principal; 216-241-1100

Amy Nash, Associate/Communications Manager; 612-375-0336

OPN Architects
Kate Beihl, Marketing Director; 319-363-6018

Sapp Design Architects
James Stufflebeam, VP, Senior Project Manager; 417-877-9600


AGATI Furniture
Teresa Downs, Downs and Associates; 303-744-0488

Brodart Contract Furniture
Ryan Hickey, Marketing Manager; 800-233-8467, x8363

DEMCO Library Interiors
Janet Nelson, Director, Business Development; 608-241-1201

Overton & Associates
Bill Overton, President and CEO; 516-449-5494

Julie Weber, Marketing Communications Specialist; 920-563-0534

Tech Logic
Steve Wilson, VP, Product Development; 651-747-0492

TMC Furniture
Heather Nash, Relationship Manager; 734-622-0080


St. Louis Public Library
Waller McGuire, Executive Director; 314-539-0300

St. Louis County Library
Kristen L. Sorth, Interim Director; 314-994-3300, x2155

This article was published in Library Journal's May 15, 2014 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Ian Chant About Ian Chant

Ian Chant is the Associate News Editor of LJ.

Learn about the top building trends in exterior and interior design from architects who have reinvigorated and reimagined library spaces throughout the United States.


  1. Ian: I have just written about Kevin Gorman of Wikipedia and would like to send him the article. Do you know his e-mail?

  2. susan casserley says:

    Nothing major, but just FYI, Sean’s last name is spelled Casserley :)

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