March 16, 2018

Customizing User Design To Fit Your Community’s Needs | Library by Design, Fall 2012

The Denver Public Library’s Green Valley Ranch Branch focuses on children and their caregivers using the library together. Photo by Paul Brokering

The challenge of providing services to a changing community while operating more efficiently made the Denver Public Library’s (DPL) leaders realize they couldn’t afford to be all things to all people—at least not at every branch.

After zeroing in on each branch’s demographics and user patterns, librarians ascertained three different user groups and developed different strategies, such as refining the service delivery, and put them into play in 2005 and 2006. “It really is borrowed from marketing from the business world,” says Susan Kotarba, director of public services at DPL.

The 2007 passage of the citywide $550 million Better Denver Bond Program, with $52 million earmarked for DPL, offered the chance to go further. Library leaders then asked architects to develop architectural and furnishing styles to serve each of the three specific user groups and the programs that target them.

DPL selected three Denver-based firms—studiotrope Design Collective, Humphries Poli Architects, and OZ Architecture—to develop its three architectural styles: Contemporary, Language and Learning, and Children and ­Family.

“Denver has done a bold thing and really stuck their neck out and experimented,” says Joseph Montalbano, architect and managing partner at studiotrope Design Collective.

Contemporary branch customers want the latest trends. Language and Learning branches offer multigenerational programming to allow adults to build new skills. Children and Family branches allow young children and their caregivers to experience the library together and engage in early literacy activities. DPL also has a few hybrid libraries, including its Central Library and the Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library (where research also is emphasized) and the recently opened Sam Gary Branch.

In addition to upgrades, including wireless technology, self-check, and automated handling at three existing and three new branches, renovations would make several branches more inviting, easier to use, and more adaptable to changing neighborhoods.

“You needed to come up with a set of concepts that could be applied to all branches and various budgets,” says Ozi Friedrich, a Humphries Poli library design specialist who created the Language and Learning architectural style.

Models of library service are nothing new. Neither is designing a building to suit its users. Both practices are recommended by professional library associations. Few libraries can afford to launch a systemwide renovation and building program. Those that can generally rush to build after funding is approved, says Friedrich, who was a librarian in New York City before joining Humphries Poli as an aspiring architect.

What makes DPL’s approach unusual is that library leaders took the time to tie the building program to service delivery by creating architectural styles for each. “To be successful you have to embrace the fact that you don’t know where libraries are going and you need to design spaces that are multifunctional, multigenerational, multicultural, and technical,” studiotrope’s Montalbano says.

Since passage of the bond, DPL’s operating budget has tightened, resulting in reduced services including limiting many branches to only 32 hours each week, Kotarba says. The tight budget picture makes it even more imperative for DPL to move, reconfigure, and reuse furnishings and fixtures easily. Reduced construction costs have allowed DPL’s money to build three new branches and to renovate the Central Library and 13 branches built between 1913 and 1996. “We originally were planning for 11 branches and were able to stretch it to 13,” Kotarba says.

Construction continues. Once complete, Denver neighborhoods will have 26 libraries.


Contemporary branches’ tech-savvy patrons live fast-paced lives and are attracted to the latest trends and immediate experiences—and they can help themselves, Kotarba says. This led to the development of the Beehive, a brightly colored glass-enclosed space for meetings, classes, events, and impromptu gatherings. Outside the Beehive, patrons will find high-demand items, staff picks, best sellers, and a staff person ready to discuss the latest releases. The branches are designed for patrons to get what they need very quickly, Kotarba says. Contemporary branch patrons desire to be empowered, stimulated, or surprised, studiotrope’s Montalbano says. “This type of person expects to have one of three things happen or they won’t come back.”

The Ross-Cherry Creek Branch’s colorful Beehive is the hub of activity, flexible enough for both library and community uses. New furniture, carpeting, and lighting attract visitors from surrounding upscale neighborhoods. Photos by The Public Works

Ross–Cherry Creek Branch

After the Ross-Cherry Creek Branch reopened in 2010 following its $1.2 million renovation, the average daily door count jumped 38 percent, from 900 visitors to 1250, says senior librarian Brent Wagner. The new furniture, carpet, bright colors, and inviting lighting may have attracted more visitors from the surrounding upscale neighborhoods and nearby mall. Wagner and his staff have observed faster visits, likely encouraged by the bright yellow and orange paint, self-service holds, and four self-check machines.

“This is hard to explain; it does not seem as frenetic as it used to be,” Wagner says.

While foot traffic rose, Cherry Creek’s annual returns dropped from about 700,000 to 270,000 items. This dive may be caused by the low processing speed of the branch’s automated sorter, possibly leading heavy library users to frequent other branches, Wagoner says.

To improve traffic flow and help patrons discover things for themselves, Montalbano says he divided the Cherry Creek vestibule to direct incoming traffic past the Beehive and away from the self-check devices. Montalbano wanted to ensure that patrons would naturally encounter librarians and other staff.

“If you do need to ask a question, you don’t need to go far,” Montalbano says. The reference desk moved from a corner to a more central location; librarians now felt like they were part of the building. “It’s much easier to determine who needs help and who wants to be left alone,” Wagner says.

The 28,490 square foot Sam Gary Branch lights up the Stapleton Town Center (top),
while inside laptop-friendly furniture cozies up to a warm fireplace where users can relax and enjoy the space.
Exterior photo by Brian Sendler; Interior photo by Drake Busch

Sam Gary Branch (hybrid)

To meet the needs of a few neighborhoods, DPL leaders realized hybrids of two or more service deliveries were needed. Opened in August, with 28,490 square feet, the $12 million Sam Gary Branch combines the Children and Family and Contemporary service deliveries and architectural styles.

The Beehive found in Contemporary branches was modified to include technology-enabled furniture, with four to six computers or smartphones connected to two monitors. Small parent or business groups are expected to use the area to collaborate, Kotarba says.

The interior is divided into three areas. Visitors will see popular materials found at a Contemporary branch and computers nearest to the entrance. Just past the computers, the adult fiction and the children’s collection are collocated, similar to the Children and Family layout. The nonfiction area offers cozy laptop-friendly furniture near a fireplace. At night, illumination from the library’s clerestory windows brightens the neighborhood.

“Everyone in this community has a front porch, and they wanted (the library) to be the front porch of the community,” says Tracy Tafoya, a principal at OZ Architecture, who designed the Sam Gary Branch.

Language and Learning

The hallmarks of the Language and Learning service delivery include community learning spaces with digital whiteboards, laptops, and movable furniture, Kotarba says. These fixtures enhance programs aimed at building technology, job search, English speaking, and other skills. Books and other non-English-language items are prominently displayed.

“The other thing about Learning and Language libraries is that they are very welcoming,” Kotarba says. “This is as much about finding staff who are fluent in Spanish or Vietnamese, who are multilingual, as it is about spaces where you feel welcome or comfortable.”

Humphries Poli’s Friedrich kept the user in mind to develop the architectural style.

“People come to the library in search of a better quality of life,” Friedrich says. “That led us to start looking at what would be the needs of people in those particular situations.”

Learning and Language branches offer adult and children’s programs simultaneously to make it easier for parents and grandparents to participate while they are caring for children. At the Montbello Branch, rolling partitions were added to the community room to offer parents and grandparents a sight line of the adjacent children’s area, says Emily Hackett, Montbello’s senior librarian. “The wall can be all the way open or halfway shut. Children can be occupied with crafts while their parents are applying for jobs,” Hackett says.

The Woodbury Branch’s second level (l.) is exposed through cutouts in the etched glass rail system. Signage (r.) efficiently addresses the multicultural needs of the library users. Photos by Paul Brokering

Woodbury Branch

When the Woodbury Branch reopened in 2010 following its $657,000 renovation, library users discovered the elegant wooden roof trusses in the 99-year-old Carnegie Library and much more. The renovation included much-needed improvements to plumbing, electrical systems, flooring, and furniture and the installation of self-check machines. The changes to the building’s layout improved the traffic flow, brightened up the walls, and illuminated both ceilings and floors.

“What I’ve heard from customers is, ‘Wow! You got more space,’  ” says Lisa Murillo, Woodbury’s senior librarian. “It’s still the same square footage. It’s brighter, lighter, roomier.”

The upgrade to the Renaissance Revival building garnered the 2010 Mountain States Construction Bronze Hard Hat Award for renovation of a historic structure. Humphries Poli’s Friedrich decided to move the nonfiction collection to the second level of the library’s 1966 addition to concentrate quieter activities in one area.

To connect the upper story with the atrium, Friedrich had sections of the solid-wood, curved railing replaced with glass etched with the word library in several languages. Now, many library patrons in this diverse older neighborhood head to the second level to study, read, or work. “It’s more utilized now than it was before,” Woodbury’s Murillo says.

The exterior of the West Denver Branch will feature a pattern of colored stucco squares as a nod to the diversity of the library’s constituents. Rendering By Studiotrope Design Collective

West Denver Branch

Scheduled to open in fall 2013, the as-yet-unnamed $12 million, two-story branch in West Denver will have an interior courtyard on the second level to fulfill neighborhood residents’ desire for a safe place to experience the outdoors, Kotarba says. “Colfax is a pretty rough neighborhood in places.”

The neighborhoods served by the library range from those undergoing gentrification to trouble pockets and offer an incredible diversity of Hispanic, Anglo, Asian, and Jewish residents, Kotarba says.

Like other Language and Learning branches, the lower level will collocate space for programs near the children’s area for simultaneous, multigenerational activities. An easily adaptable collaboration area is planned for the second floor; a glass “perch” over the northwestern entrance will offer views of Rocky Mountain National Park and stations to listen to music, Montalbano says. Uniting each is a ground-to-roof translucent architectural feature called the Wonder Wall. It will house ducts for hot and cold air exchange and the automated book return. It will also draw natural light into the library, Montalbano says.

On the exterior, a pattern of colorful, textured stucco squares represents the diversity of the neighborhoods coming together. “We call them threads of the community. As they thread their way through the Wonder Wall, they become a quilt,” Montalbano says.

Children and Family

The Children and Family architecture style focuses on young children and their caregivers experiencing the library together. To accomplish that goal, educational toys called Discovery Pods are spread throughout each of the renovated Children and Family branches, for example, having them mounted on shelving units in the adult collection. The kids and adult books are collocated. “It’s ­really designed so adults can browse for popular things with their kids still around them and within hearing range and in sight,” Kotarba says.

Computer terminals offer room for two or three people to share one workstation and pair a children’s computer with an adult terminal, says Tafoya of OZ Architecture, which developed the architecture style. This “parallel play” approach allows parents and children to work side by side or together, she says.

“The biggest distinction is how you layout the library,” Tafoya says.

Changes in existing branches made a huge difference to patrons’ experience. At the Virginia Village Branch, the $730,000 renovation included lowering shelving height, opening the floor plan, adding intimate seating areas, and upgrading lighting and upholstery, but the square footage remained constant. “At Virginia Village, people walked in and said, ‘How much did you add onto the building?’  ” Kotarba says.

The Green Valley Ranch Branch’s landscaping was sown from Denver’s agricultural heritage.
Photo by Paul Brokering

Green Valley Ranch Branch

To design the $12 million Green Valley Ranch Branch, Dennis Humphries, a principal at Humphries Poli Architects in Denver, focused on the neighborhood residents’ desire to see the library reflect the area’s agricultural heritage and its ties to Denver International Airport. Humphries coined the terms iPlains and ePlanes. Wavy aerodynamic shapes hang from the library ceiling, and four sections of the library’s overhanging roof tilt up at a slight angle like airline wings. Abstractions of aerial views of crops are found in the carpets and landscaping.

A Discovery Pod constructed from a 737 cockpit attracts the most attention.

“Everything within the building was really organized around the reference to the iPlains and the ePlanes,” Humphries says. “It was quite amazing that it was generated by the community.”

In the seven months following Green Valley’s 2011 opening, 4,231 new library cards were issued, Kotarba says, indicating the new branch is reaching nonlibrary users in a neighborhood with one of the highest concentrations of children in the city. Picture books are checked out almost as fast as they are shelved, says Green Valley Ranch senior librarian Colleen Galvin. The Colorado Association of Libraries selected the Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) Gold-certified branch as the 2011 Library of the Year.

For Galvin, success is measured by the interaction among families. One of her favorite anecdotes is of three toddlers and their caregivers getting to know one another. While the tots played with large foam letters at a Discovery Pod, three older men who were fathers or grand­fathers exchanged tips about their Blackberry-style smartphones. “It’s exactly what we want to see in the library,” Galvin says. “It was working exactly as this library was designed—the community to get together and share information.”

The future

Denver Public Library has already begun to look to the future by mining the 2010 Census and data from its new integrated library system with a goal of looking even deeper at its community’s needs, Kotarba says.

Architects involved in the process say that bold leaders, community support, and the willingness to spend the time and money to develop a data-driven vision would be needed for another library system to adopt DPL’s approach of creating architectural styles to match service delivery and guide renovations.

“The future of libraries is just unknown. The number one response as an architect is to make them future proof,” studiotrope’s Montalbano says. “We need to design in a way that is culturally flexible.

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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  1. Have a inspring impression when I read the article.

  2. This project demonstrates how True Marketing can inform successful, effective change. In my Libraries Are Essential business and presentations, I always encourage librarians to study their customers as the first step in any venture.
    Well done, Denver PL!!