March 17, 2018

Embracing Austin, Inside and Out | Library by Design, Fall 2013

With a rooftop reading garden and reading porches on three floors, the new Austin Central Library, TX, in the city’s downtown will embrace the community’s love affair with books and nature. “Austin is an outdoor kind of city,” says John W. Gillum, Austin Public Library (APL) facilities process manager. “We tried to bring the outdoors indoors in this building.” Construction started in May on the as-yet-unnamed $90 million, 198,000 square foot new Central Library, which will be built of wood, metal, and native limestone. (Gillum says that the APL Friends Foundation, a merger of the Friends and the foundation, is working on getting a large donation and that may result in a name.)

Features include a 350-seat event center with a flat floor and flexible seating, a used bookstore, a movable demonstration kitchen, a level devoted to children and teens, at least a dozen technology-rich meeting rooms for smaller gatherings, accommodating from four to 12 people. Plus, of course, many places to curl up inside and outside to read or enjoy the views of the city, natural trails, and waterways.

A $90 million bond passed in 2006 and a land sale will fund the $120 million effort, which includes extending streets and improving infrastructure. The new Central Library will replace the technologically outdated 33-year-old, 110,000 square foot John Henry Faulk Central Library, which will become archival and display space for the Austin History Center. As the 18-branch system grew, Faulk’s meeting room, auditorium, and other programming space was sacrificed for administrative and behind-the-scenes functions. “We just outgrew it,” Gillum says. Faulk was built for a community of 350,000, Gillum says. Austin reached almost 842,600 residents in 2012, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.


Input from community meetings held by library leaders and the design team at Shepley Bulfinch Richardson and Abbott of Boston and Lake|Flato Architects of San Antonio guided decisions. Shepley Bulfinch is the architect of record, though Lake|Flato took the lead on the exterior.

“People were saying, ‘Give me a place where I can read books,’ ” says Lynn Petermann, an Austin project team member at Shepley Bulfinch.

Austin Central Library at a Glance:

Architects: Shepley Bulfinch Richardson and Abbott of Boston
and Lake|Flato Architects of San Antonio
Square Footage: 198,000
Construction Cost: $90 million
Total cost: $120 million, including costs to extend streets and other improvements
Public computers: About 100
Capacity: 530,000 books, DVDs, CDs, etc.
Parking: 200 automobiles, 200 bicycles
Levels: Six
Expected completion: 2016
Materials: Wood, metal and native limestone

Austinites also asked for sufficient vehicle parking, bicycle storage, a café, and a well-lit, unique, green building. Lighting was particularly important because it is lacking in the existing Faulk Library, where the poor lighting in the stacks generates complaints from customers and pages who can’t see the labels. “We have lanterns that we put on the carts that [pages] can shine in the direction of the shelving,” Karen Baker, Central Library services manager, says.

Community members also asked for a library with an Austin vibe. The liberal enclave’s unofficial slogan is “Keep Austin Weird,” and that includes thriving food and music scenes as well as outdoor pursuits. “They wanted it to be beautiful and look like Austin and be an icon they could be proud of,” Gillum says.

Baker expects to offer extensive programming at the new Central Library and to build partnerships with other organizations to enrich library events on topics such as rearing urban chickens, organic farming, beekeeping, and Texas cuisine. Baker says, “We want more programs that have the Austin vibe.”

That Austin vibe will inform the collection as well: when it opens in 2016, the new Central Library Austin will feature collections of CDs recorded by Austin musicians and cookbooks filled with Texas and Austin cuisine, as well as traditional library offerings, says Baker. The library also hopes to rebuild its zine collection.


The city aimed for a Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) Silver certification but is on track to earn a Platinum, says Sid Bowen, principal architect at Shepley Bulfinch. The new library will offer electric car charging stations, a bike corral near a popular biking and hiking trail, and an underground cistern (converted from a vault left on the site) to collect rainwater for irrigation and toilets. According to Jonathan Smith, Lake|Flato project architect, the new library is expected to employ 60 percent of the power used by a similarly sized building. A photovoltaic cell designed to generate 13 percent of the library’s power will shade the rooftop garden. A perforated aluminum scrim will act as a curtain over the southern, eastern, and western facades of the library to filter sunlight and reduce glare and heat, the architectural team says.

In the center of the library, natural light will flood an airy, six-story atrium. An angled roof and angled glass will diffuse the harsh Texas sun, Shepley Bulfinch’s Petermann says. Stairs and “bridges” of wood and glass will connect the levels, says Bowen. “We wanted the atrium to be the heart of the library,” says Lake|Flato’s David Lake, lead designer on the project.

Information kiosks will be located throughout the building to help patrons connect with resources and services. Library leaders are exploring technology to make librarians more mobile. The library will be the third in the system to move to radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, and Baker has asked for 27 self-check stations to offer convenient checkout.


According to Baker, the new Central will have about 100 desktop computers, almost double its current capacity. However, the library expects patrons’ technology needs to change rapidly. “By 2016, we might need places for comfortable seating for laptop users, instead of desktops,” Baker says. “We’ll have laptops and tablets, a smorgasbord of devices.”

Consultant Joan Frye Williams reviewed plans to “future-proof” the buildings, suggesting dispersing the public computers throughout the building and planning to shift to mobile technology. “So much has changed in libraries in the last four years; the iPad had not been introduced when we started,” Bowen says.

Frye Williams approved plans to devote most of the third floor to youth services. “We’ll have a whimsical children’s area, where they can be safe, and an edgy and avant-garde area for the teenagers,” Gillum says.

The library construction is driving infrastructure improvements, such as extending streets and water lines and new bridge construction, that are needed to encourage redevelopment of 20 acres in Austin’s western downtown that is home to an obsolete power plant and other industry, Gillum says. Gillum predicts that in five years, the area will “become our new cultural and civic center.”

Marta Murvosh, MLS, is a recovering journalist who works for a regional library system in Northwestern Washington, where she connects patrons to information, resources, technology, and books. You can follow her at

This article was published in Library Journal's September 15, 2013 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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  1. I moved to Austin just as the previous new library was opening, in 1980. The article says nothing about access for those who have disabilities. Looking at these illustrations I see so many steps; as a person who was in a wheelchair and had to relearn to walk, I hope there will be no access challenges and plenty of elevators so people don’t get stuck on a floor if one elevator bay breaks. And no added obstacles for those with vision limitations.

  2. Justa Fact says:

    An edifice to obsolescence.

    Who builds a library in the age of electronic publishing at the cost of $120,000,000.00? Austin would’ve been better off expanding free Wi-Fi throughout the city and building a server bank with licensed books available for the residents to download. Austin’s is a high tech city and an old skool library is just dumb and getting dumber. The existing Faulk library is a flop house for smelly vagrants half of whom are sleeping. Political correctness protects their right to hang out there and run off the citizens who actually pay taxes. This new library only provides them with upgraded facilities at the taxpayers expense. I would NEVER take my children to either.

    With its hate of the automobile and love of taxing citizens, I predict parking at the library will cost residents at least $7, like the other lots funded and built by the citizens. Parking at Faulk may have been less, but at least it was FREE when it was built.

    A colossal waste of money in a city that already has the highest public debt and highest city government cost per citizen in the state.