April 23, 2018

Madison Central Library | New Landmark Libraries 2015 Winner


A Catalyst for Creativity

Madison Central Library | Wisconsin


OPENED: 2013
COST: About $30 million
LEED-NC v.3 Gold Certified

After 45 years of service, Madison’s Central Library building was on the eve of renovation. But, first, it needed a proper send-off. In early 2012, library administrators invited nearly 100 artists to invade the space, using interactive space design and gently used library materials to turn the then-empty building’s industrial husk into a 95,000 square foot temporary art gallery and party space. The ensuing celebration, called Bookless, served as the building’s Viking funeral, bringing 5,000 people together on a chilly February weekend to kick off the space’s metamorphosis.

Over the next two years, the space was transformed from a dilapidated brick municipal building into a LEED Gold–­certified landmark of the city’s downtown.

A rigorous community engagement process reinforced the need for the Central Library to play many roles for a population with an increasingly diverse set of needs. Shrinking the service desks allowed for more direct engagement with staff. Strategic partnerships with local social service organizations created a new model for assisting the city’s growing homeless population. All the while, ample seating and ready access to power allow patrons to define the library’s “living room” in the way that works best for them.

Patrons have returned to a building once thought to be in a dangerous part of town, with a 252 percent increase in total visitors and a 101 percent increase in checkouts in the first year.

Flexibility is a signature element of the renewed Central Library. Compact shelving and lower stack heights free up more space for seating and programming, while new display units encourage browsing and discovery. Movable walls allow for a variety of program types, keeping noise out of common gathering areas while providing windows for passersby and onlookers from the Overture Center for the Arts across the street.


Construction was capped off with a 25,000 square foot third-floor addition, providing more flexible space. Movable walls offer gathering space for up to 300 people, making it possible to host everything from meetings to gallery openings to weddings overlooking the library’s new green roof. Street-accessible entrances allow these rooms to be used after hours. Renovating the existing building rather than starting over with new construction enabled the library to make sustainability a priority. Over 3,400 tons of building materials and furniture were reused, recycled, or sold off before and during the construction, reducing landfill waste. Solar cells line the roof, and automated lighting controls adjust based on the amount of available sunlight. Many of these controls are visible to the public, providing object lessons in sustainable design to library visitors.

The Bubbler serves as the best indicator of the Central Library’s commitment to being an incubator for new ideas, fulfilling the mission statement “Madison Public Library: your place to learn, create, and share.” This constantly changing Maker space is the hub for a variety of creative collaborations targeting patrons of all ages, including artist-in-residence programs and design workshops. Combined with the adjoining media lab, the Bubbler acts a magnet for artistic expression on both digital and analog fronts. By focusing on flexibility and fostering discovery at every turn, the Central Library has become a spark of inspiration to the community it serves.

The books have returned to Madison’s flagship library, but the Bookless spirit lives on. [For more on Madison Central Library’s renovation, see “Lighting Quality, Not Quantity,” Spring 2014 Library by Design.]—Toby Greenwalt

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

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