March 18, 2018

Creation Nation | Library by Design, Fall 2013

There are few more exciting places to contemplate the evolution of library design than Seattle’s Central Library, designed by Rem Koolhaas. Opened in 2004 and still surprising, it proved to be a vibrant setting for LJ’s 13th daylong Design Institute (DI), held there May 10 and developed in partnership with Seattle Public Library (SPL) and neighboring King County Library System (KCLS). Some 100 participants gathered with architects and vendors for a confab about the changing shape of library spaces as collections alter in response to digital content and budget-driven, ever-morphing staff levels.

SEATTLE DREAMING Top row, l.-r.: Design thinkers gathered at Seattle PL’s Central Library, a city icon now rivaling the landmark Space Needle Once welcomed and signed up for the day’s challenge session, the fun began. Bottom row, l.-r.: Joining in were (l.–r.): King County Library System’s Bill Ptacek and Adrianne Ralph and Seattle PL’s Marcellus Turner.
The library’s auditorium did double duty hosting panels and challenges.
Bottom right photo ©2013 Koshtra Tolle/Getty Images; all other photos by Kevin Henegan

PROFESSIONAL HELP Throughout, attendees had a wealth of information to gather, from vendor and architect sponsors, among them (top row, l.-r.) Brodart Contract Furniture, Jasper Library Furniture, and AGATI Furniture. Bottom row, l.-r.: DEMCO Library Interiors, Humphries Poli Architects, and THA Architecture. Photos by Kevin Henegan

Despite the challenges, the future looks pretty dynamic, with responsive spaces that last. Flexibility, no surprise, remains a watchword in any conversation that probes the inevitability of changes ahead. So, of course, is creation and the role of the library in an increasingly collaborative world.

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


Denelle C. Wrightson, Director, Library Architecture

Humphries Poli Architects
Dennis Humphries, Principal

Amy Nash, Associate/Communications Manager

SHKS Architects
Kevin Kane, Principal

Tappé Associates
Jeff Hoover, Principal

THA Architecture
Lyndsay Huffman, Marketing Coordinator


AGATI Furniture
Teresa Downs, Downs and Associates

Brodart Contract Furniture
Chris Frantz, Director of Marketing and Sales

DEMCO Library Interiors
Janet Nelson, Director, Business Development

Jasper Library Furniture
Brian Lish, President


Seattle Public Library
Marcellus Turner, Director
Cara A. Cronholm, Event Svcs. Mgr.

King County Library System
Bill Ptacek, Director
Maria Hatcher, Asst. to the Director

Cultural hubs

Change notwithstanding, some things will persist, such as the library’s role as a cultural hub, noted Dennis Humphries, principal of Humphries Poli Architecture. That capacity is universal, Humphries said, and will be ongoing despite collection shifts. Successful libraries will have “enduring spaces that can embrace whatever happens in them,” with flexibility reflected in features such as fewer columns and raised floors.

THA Architecture’s Becca Cavell agreed, adding that libraries must be efficient to operate and “understand the relationship between the space design and the function.” That is where things are currently changing fast.

A good history will help libraries with public support, though. “The experience they had brings people back to the library,” Tappé Associates principal Jeff Hoover later noted, adding that when it comes to a digitized world, “We just need to treat people well in the e-library.”

To see ahead, it can be useful to scan across library type. Public libraries can look to academic settings for inspiration, said Carson Block, consultant and former IT director at the Poudre River Public Library, “especially on tech.” College and university libraries have more space to do work and more technology with which to do it. Academic librarians, in turn, need to focus on what good public libraries are doing, noted Seattle University’s John Popko. “We’re trying to strike a balance in terms of what our users need over time, as their needs vary…[as] they are with us,” he said. “They want to pull the door shut behind them to do the work at hand, physically or not.”

Several panelists discussed how space can be transformed by changes in service, thinking about the user experience, and breaking staff patterns. Popko, who oversaw the new library at Seattle University, an LJ New Landmark Library, noted the value of an interim space to “help break staff from old habits of thinking.”

Speaking of staff, libraries are designed for them, too. Popko’s library offers diverse work spaces for different types of teams, but he noted that numerous small break rooms “came at the cost of some camaraderie.”

For little children, said Cavell, library space should be really fun. Focus on adaptable spaces so story times can be all sorts of sizes. Be aware that many teens are latchkey, she said: “We want them to come, stay, do their homework, vibe with their friends.” Gaming is one programming element to deploy. But there are also caves:  Vancouver has one in which teens can change the color of the LED lights.

Among the most exciting things on the horizon, noted SHKS Architects’ Kevin Kane, is how we deploy technology. “The experience and the place must be considered” when planning technology, he said, adding that the “Greek term Technic means more about making and doing.”

Creation centers

“The library is a place for creation, not just consumption,” said Block, also tapping into the burgeoning Maker movement. “That’s always been,” and it’s not just about technology. “We live in a world of ‘and,’ not ‘either/or,’ ” he added. “When we think of spaces, we need to consider that. We need to support the old as the new takes over. It’s tempting to gravitate too fast to the new.”

Still, the new is not just about the high end of tech, noted Popko, pointing to the use of technology such as whiteboards to work on and define work spaces informally. “We see students using all the tech we provide,” he noted, and “we manage it as little as possible.”

Hoover referred to the experiential, collaborative learning space in terms of a commons where people use information, employ it, share it. It is, he noted, a “wow” factor for the library.

Of course, the library as learning space is the ultimate “wow.” This can be facilitated by various strategies. “When it comes to hands-on learning,” noted MS&R’s Traci Lesneski, “the more senses you utilize, the better your learning.”

IDEAS AND INSIGHT Top row, l.-r.: Discussing the “Reconfigured Library” were (l.–r.) Seattle University’s John Popko, THA’s Becca Cavell, and consultant Carson Block. Also offering valuable insight was Kevin Kane, from SHKS (inset). SHKS’s Kelly Sommerfield (l.) helped reimagine a new tech center during the Sno-Isle PL challenge session. Attendees conceptualized new ideas via visuals in Spokane County Library District’s challenge session. Bottom row, l.-r.: The second panel, on the user experience, had professional tips from (l.–r.) MS&R’s Traci Lesneski, Dewberry’s Denelle Wrightson, and King County’s Adrianne Ralph, as well as Tappé Associates’ Jeff Hoover. Architects discussed each challenge project and the session outcomes during a takeaway panel. Top left and bottom middle and right photos ©2013 Koshtra Tolle/Getty Images; all other photos by Kevin Henegan

Other ways to deploy some wow include designing libraries and programs that reveal new layers of discovery, said Dewberry’s Denelle Wrightson, so people keep finding new things. “Some libraries are bringing in big exhibits,” she said, “providing a new role for them in the community.” A less intensive and expensive option, she suggested, is the use of projections of images to make a changeable experience.

Lesneski stressed the need to connect to the local to make the wow: the history of the place and people there. Hoover essentially agreed. “The library is our big intergenerational opportunity,” he added. “It won’t happen accidentally.”

Sedro-Woolley Public Library, WA

Architect: MS&R

THE CHALLENGE Situated in rural Washington, Sedro-Woolley Public Library has been strapped for space for years and is “electrically challenged,” as Director Debra Peterson puts it. Now, with the approval of a library district that will expand the service area, the library has the opportunity to lease new space—but it needs to keep costs down. Nevertheless, Peterson and her small staff (4.5 FTEs) have big plans: to do much more with early learning, create a space for teens in a community that has no place for them to congregate, provide much needed meeting space, and add parking and possibly a Maker space as well.

THE BRAINSTORM The group, led by MS&R architects Traci Lesneski and Jack Poling (standing in photo below), debated leasing options: a former Rite Aid in a strip mall—32,000 square feet—or a centrally located but beat-up downtown space—22,000 square feet—that needs a lot of work. Before reaching consensus, the architects distributed schemes for each option, along with cutouts representing the entry, youth, teen, and adult spaces, a meeting room, and staff and building support space. Then the group went to work situating the cutouts. Suggestions included a meeting room with movable walls and its own entry so that it would be accessible after library hours; a teen space as far away from the children as possible; and a central service point for the whole library. Ultimately, the group decided the Rite Aid was the better bet, with more space, heating and cooling systems already installed, and fewer repairs to be made.

Sno-Isle Libraries, WA

Architect: SHKS Architects

THE CHALLENGE Two of Sno-Isle’s largest libraries, Lynnwood and Marysville, need 1,000 square foot technology centers, but the branches have space and budget constraints and want to minimize the loss of shelving to house collections. The space must be flexible enough to act as a classroom one hour and house a group study project the next and will need to be available to the public during all open hours, with use of the space to shift based on demand. Pending city approval, Sno-Isle has identified possible areas in both libraries that could be converted to this new use.

THE BRAINSTORM Using a floor plan of space that could be allocated to services, the group, led by Kevin Kane of SHKS Architects, agreed that the library can sacrifice its existing print reference section to create a technology center that can help bridge gaps in access and interconnectivity between what people experience in their school or work environments and their home lives, expose emerging tech trends, foster personalized learning, and support digital literacy. But what is a tech center and what should it look and act like? By using Post-it notes to brainstorm objectives and activities for the center, the breakout group decided conventional classrooms are not the way to go. The new space should not be just a digital classroom but “the creation center.” What that means concretely, the group decided, is that the environment, like the tech it teaches, should be creative, visible, and flexible, featuring portable technological devices, not just fixed workstations, and a collaborative environment—even encouraging patrons to work with the environment, via an interactive wall.

Spokane County Library District, WA

Architect: THA Architecture

THE CHALLENGE Design a new building that addresses user needs both now and into the future, with a focus on community gathering spaces. Large, flexible spaces must support story times, musical performances, community meetings, group collaboration, individual endeavors, and study, and Maker spaces, as well as mobile shelving, service points, furniture, and electric power access.

THE BRAINSTORM Led by THA architect Becca Cavell, with background from Spokane’s Region I branch services manager Patrick Roewe (photo below, l.), the group broke into three vision groups that took 15 minutes each to address focused questions. First, they considered what the ideal library, when packed, would feel like and selected three from a wide range of images on cards to represent the group’s consensus. This got participants dreaming and talking. “Organic” images were echoed by two of the brainstorming crews. Other images chosen pointed to connection, collaboration, individual expression, acceptance, energy, growth, excitement, diversity, and lifelong learning. Building on that foundation, the groups moved on to identify actions by whether they are diminishing, constant, or growing. Not surprisingly, community and Maker spaces were hot, as was gaming. The need for flexibility was reinforced, with suggestions to build spaces with furniture rather than permanent infrastructure, taking inspiration from, among other things, Denver’s Maker space, which is delineated by scaffolding.

Palmyra Public Library, PA

Architect: Tappé Associates

THE CHALLENGE The facility the library currently shares with the Palmyra Borough Municipal Center, a retrofit of an American Legion hall, is scheduled for demolition, and the replacement will hold the municipal center only. The library must move to temporary quarters by fall 2013, while it builds a new three-story library on a donated lot—next to a fire station, so noise issues will be key. In this new and, one hopes, Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED)–certified facility, the library needs spaces for youth programs, community groups, quiet study, a small-business center, and an Internet café, as well as its after-school youth center and homework club, which bring in 100 kids each day.

THE BRAINSTORM Architect Jeff Hoover and librarian Karla Trout told the group that the town is seeing a demographic shift as younger people move in, attracted by the lower cost of living: the schools have seen 25 percent growth in five years, and there is a waiting list for story times and already heavy teen use. Participants suggested flexible teen spaces that can allow an ebb and flow of adults and teens. It features storage/flexible furniture, power/data options, and media space, as well as a teen collaboration space/homework center. For the even younger set, an early learning/display center, tactile learning opportunities, and a place to store and clean toys so children’s areas might also serve an adult purpose topped the list. The group suggested having fewer computers (but plenty of plugs) as patrons bring more tech of their own. However, those the library provides should have more power and offer things users can’t get at home, such as larger screens and software to produce video/multimedia. Some 700 small businesses could be supported by defining spaces via pods and partitions or a flexible conference room that could be used by businesspeople and the homework center tutors at different times of the day.

Douglas County Libraries, CO

Architect: Humphries Poli Architects

THE CHALLENGE Douglas County Libraries (DCL) will build three new library buildings over the next five years. Each needs to be modular, highly flexible, and branded. The planners want to know what people are going to want to do in the “library of the future” and design spaces that anticipate and meet these needs. The libraries intend to be a place of discovery, exploration, and innovation, balanced with ease of access and spaces that facilitate community engagement.

THE BRAINSTORM David Farnan, associate director of community services at DCL, and the design team led by Humpries Poli Architects asked attendees to help create consistent services across locations of three different sizes: 12,000, 24,000, and 48,000 square feet. To inspire the group, they showed slides of key projects, as well as innovations from around the globe, including “virtual” items on Korean shelves, stored and delivered to customers from a back room. In a key part of the brainstorm, using a process called “role storming,” the architects split the group into a team for each building, asked them to choose from a list of famous persons, assume their personas, and speculate as to how they would design a library. The groups picked Walt Disney, Steve Jobs, and a combination—“Walt Jobs”—bringing to the design high imagination; iconic design; a sense of awe, wonder, and celebration; extraordinary customer service; and more. They also ranked the top ten destinations for patrons within each library. Finally, starting with an overhead photograph of each actual site location, the architects offered physical materials ranging from tile and fabric samples to construction paper and asked each team to “build” its library.

Mount Vernon City Library, WA

Architect: Dewberry

THE CHALLENGE Mount Vernon City Library is completely out of space and crammed into an older building that doesn’t have the overall square footage, community gathering space, or wiring/capacity to meet the needs of a 21st-century library of its size. The library is exploring building a new facility on already city-owned land in conjunction with a park and to construct joint park/library community meeting rooms. The potential new location is in an area of growing neighborhoods that have many urban issues, including a close proximity to homeless shelters, a regional transit center, mental health facilities, and substance abuse facilities. The library would need to be able to provide services that support community needs.

THE BRAINSTORM Dewberry’s Denelle Wrightson (right photo, l.) and Mount Vernon representatives invited attendees to place each of about 16 colored dots onto posters around the room depicting aspects of library design, to show which they felt should be priorities. Among the priorities that surfaced for this diversifying town of 33,000, which also serves as a bedroom community for the Seattle workforce, were dedicated children’s and adult spaces and a rearticulation of the need for the teen center that was already defined as a priority; a technology center, including a petting zoo; auditoriums; few fixed walls; a variety of seating and spaces, including outdoors; and meeting rooms that can serve entrepreneurs, GED classes, tutoring, and homeschoolers alike. Group computer areas, the participants decided, should be set up to serve both younger gamers and businesspeople while reducing the disturbance to other patrons, and outdoor spaces were discussed for their value for summer programming, gatherings, and pick-ups and drop-offs.

—Carson Block, Francine Fialkoff, Rebecca T. Miller, Kathleen Quinlan, Meredith Schwartz, & Lisa Vos

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

Rebecca T. Miller About Rebecca T. Miller

Rebecca T. Miller ( is Editorial Director, Library Journal and School Library Journal.

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