February 16, 2018

Up Close: Giving the People What They Want at Cuyahoga County Public Library, OH | Library by Design

New at the Warrensville Heights Branch is a multiworkstation computer area and a cool recording studio for public use


“It’s the largest investment in our 90-year history,” says Sari Feldman about Ohio’s Cuyahoga County Public Library (CCPL) plan to renovate or rebuild 18 of its 28 branches.

The $110 million spate of rebuilding, led by executive director Feldman and detailed in CCPL’s Facilities Master Plan, will create new and updated library facilities that the library says will save CCPL $4 million a year.

Those savings are particularly meaningful, because since 2008 CCPL’s revenues have dropped by $14.9 million owing to state budget cuts, and since 2009 property tax revenues declined by $7 million.

The library raised funds by selling $75 million in bonds, using $25 million from library capital funds, and raising an additional $10 million through a capital campaign, according to Feldman.

“Eight or nine years ago, we recognized that we had many branches that needed replacement or major renovation,” says Feldman, who recently won the 2013 Charlie Robinson Award, given to public library directors deemed risk-takers and innovators over several years. “We could not expect cities or schools to put this on the ballot for us. They could barely pass their own issues. So we called together 40 representatives from across our system—government officials, clergy, school superintendents, and people connected to the library in some way. We met about five times over six months and analyzed our story and how we could move forward both to continue a high quality of service and do it out of better facilities.”

In 2009, the library contracted Cleveland’s Bostwick Design Partnership to create a comprehensive facilities assessment, which, after board review and public comment, the board approved in June 2010. Things are in full swing now, with several branches under construction. “We have six ribbon-cuttings for replacement buildings in 2013,” Feldman says.

The plan maintains that efficient renovations and sustainable, one-story structures with fewer service points and open floor plans will better serve CCPL’s 47 communities in greater Cleveland. Along with perks like better technology, homework centers, recording studios, cafés, drive-through windows, easier browsing, and, in one of the larger facilities, a 400-seat auditorium, the branches are conceived to be vibrant community gathering places.

Gathering Input

As such, community involvement has been key to every step in the planning process, with advanced feedback about what people want from their neighborhood libraries, both in service and style, defining each new design.

This influence shows, for example, in two very different new facilities: the modern, geometric Warrensville Heights Branch, which opened on April 21, 2012, and the Olmsted Falls Branch, with a dark red exterior and classic peaked roofs, which opened on February 23 of this year.

Planning the Warrensville Heights facility, the first of the new buildings to be completed, CCPL held larger meetings and then eight smaller community focus groups to gather ideas, says Feldman. The old branch was a cement block. “The number one thing people wanted was natural light,” Feldman says, and “a great community meeting space, traditional quiet space, and lots of room for youth to interact.”

Stylistically, the community favored “a very contemporary style—glass and steel,” says CCPL marketing and communications director Hallie Rich. The library was conceived as part of an economic development program for Warrensville Heights, and the city bought and gave the library 4.25 acres to develop, says Feldman. The resulting $9.75 million, 25,000 square foot structure, conceived by Cleveland’s Holzheimer Bolek Meehan Architects, is collocated with a new YMCA.

Olmsted Falls patrons, by contrast, were “looking for a building design that would fit in with the reserved architectural style of the community,” says Rich. Hence, the traditional profile of the $1.75 million, 6,000 square foot new Olmsted Falls branch, designed by the Cleveland-based Van Dyke Architects LLC. As with these two buildings, “all of our architects and construction managers are local,” says Feldman.

While Warrensville Heights is a success by any standards—circulation is up over 100 percent and visits by 125 percent, says Feldman—she realized, moving forward, that “there might be a better way to gather information than focus groups.” CCPL adopted what she calls a “world café” model of community engagement. First, it took the meetings “out of the library” and into “a community center or a YMCA or a school,” places that are “easy for people to get to, with lots of parking.”

The world café element comes into play inside, where CCPL sets up six tables displaying photographs of sample library spaces—unidentified—for the public to browse through. “Each table is dedicated to one element of the design: exterior, children’s spaces, adult spaces,” and more, says Rich.

“We number the photographs and have library staff stationed at each table so that residents could say, ‘I love number 12, but I hate number six,’ ” she says. “We say, ‘What is it about number 12 that you like?’ We try to zero in on the elements they’re looking at.”

Feldman observes, “Having these images there is powerful, because it sparks people to think in a way that they didn’t expect. They are seeing unique and progressive kinds of spaces and that shapes and changes the feedback. They think of things they never ­imagined.”

“We have these community meetings outside the library, multiple times, and send communications to the residences,” Feldman adds. “If people can’t make the meetings, they find a way to give feedback.”

Some results? Envisioning a new Mayfield Branch, scheduled to open in April, “They asked for a lot of natural materials,” says Rich. The building is located in the midst of a park and wetlands district, so “they wanted something that integrated with that natural environment.” The library has been designed so that the entire back wall overlooks trails and wetlands.

Planning a replacement Orange Branch, “We went in expecting the feedback to be asking for a more traditional, stately design,” says Rich. Instead, “the feedback has gravitated toward more contemporary than we expected.” Community members also like the idea of natural materials—wood, stone, and glass.

The new South Euclid/Lyndhurst Branch will replace one currently located in the Telling Mansion, a historic structure that the library plans to sell. Not everyone is happy about this, and a petition has been launched protesting the plan.

“There is a lot of affection and nostalgia for the historic building,” says Rich. Nonetheless, as the process moves forward with construction set to begin this summer, “what we’re hearing from focus groups is that they want cozy, comfortable space,” as in the historic setting, as well as “more openness with lots of natural light, which is not a feature” currently. A larger meeting room space and a more browser-friendly floor plan are also part of the scheme. The new $12.6 million, 30,000 square foot facility is scheduled to open in fall 2014.

The most financially ambitious project is the new Parma Branch, a $15.6 million, 43,000 square foot facility that will open its doors this fall. Since “we don’t have a main library” in the CCPL system, “the investment is all back into the community,” says Feldman. “The community involvement is one of the best pieces of our story.”—Sarah Bayliss (shbayliss@gmail.com) has written for LJ’s Movers & Shakers feature and Library by Design supplements

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

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